Category Archives: reviews

On Robin Fleming’s ‘Britain After Rome’

Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070 should perhaps have been a different book altogether.

The product of ten years’ work on the part of Robin Fleming, a professor at Boston College (Boston, Massachusetts, USA), Britain After Rome was commissioned by David Cannadine within the Penguin History of Britain series. It covers the huge span of time — nearly seven centuries — that elapsed between the departure of the Roman legions and the arrival of William the Conqueror. As such, it follows in the footsteps of at least two other Penguin volumes: The Anglo-Saxons (James Campbell et al, 1991) and The Beginnings of English Society (Dorothy Whitelock, 1963).

Based on all this, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Britain After Rome was intended as a general introduction to this large, complex and in many ways intractable subject — a book for students, clearly, but perhaps also for the casual museum visitor who has been stunned by the splendour of the Staffordshire Hoard and wants to know more, the casual reader wondering to what degree The Lantern Bearers (1959) makes any sort of historical sense, the anxious observer of current affairs hoping acquire a longer view regarding the challenges, curiosities and catastrophes of our own time.

Yet Britain After Rome in fact strongest precisely at the point where it stops trying to pass itself off as a generalist introduction. Far and away the best thing about the book is the final chapter, “Living and Dying in Early Medieval Britain: The Fifth to Eleventh Century” [sic]. Here, with the end in sight, as it were, Professor Fleming is at last able to bypass aspects of human experience that don’t seem to engage her quite so fully — religion, politics, warfare, agriculture, craftsmanship, linguistics — and can concentrate fully on the part of her subject to which she brings the most obvious energy.

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Mark Alexander’s ‘Red Mannheim’ at St Paul’s Cathedral

Two new works by contemporary British artist Mark Alexander are currently hanging on either side of the nave of St Paul’s Cathedral this summer, selected as a part of the Dean and Chapter’s ongoing Cathedral Art Programme.

The Red Mannheim is composed of two sets of screenprints — nine panels in each, hung in a grid, about four metres tall once grouped — the palette sharply limited to black and a visceral, super-saturated red. Non-identical, the paired works are based on an altarpiece originally created for the choir of the Sebastiankirk in Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg, by that master of Rococco woodcarving, Paul Egell, c. 1739-41. (A photo of one of the sets of panels appears at the bottom of this post.)

The history of the Mannheim altarpiece turns out to be a story of loss, transposition of meaning and woundedness.

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Christen Købke at the National Gallery

When I set out to see Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light at the National Gallery recently — on the day before it closed, in fact, although it’s now moving to Edinburgh, where it remains until 3 October 2010 — the name ‘Kobke’ rang no loud bells, so I assumed that I’d never seen this early nineteenth century artist’s work before.

So much for the reliability of memory, eh? Although I didn’t post about it at the time — although I can’t quite reconstruct the crisis of confidence that prevented that 10,000 word draft getting as far as actual publication, unpublished it remains — in truth I could hardly tear myself away from the Royal Academy’s extravagant, eye-opening Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830, the late Robert Rosenblum’s final major gift to art-historical revisionism. I know I must have visited that show half a dozen times, perhaps more. And while the the slightly disorienting array of treasures there included work by David, Reynolds, Houdon, Zoffany, Goya and Ingres, as well as dozens of less stellar figures, one of the pictures that really stood out was, of all things, a portrait by Christen Købke himself.

Painted when the artist was only 22 years old, Købke’s Portrait of the Landscape Painter Frederik Sodring (1832) is an extraordinary, lucid, arresting little work. Across its surface, the oil has been applied as thin as tempera. The details of that pot of trailing ivy, the enamel snuffbox, upturned brush, oh-so-practical improvised chair-cover and meticulous sketches of the Roman Forum are all so ‘real’ as to seem almost hallucinogenic. None of this, though, is achieved at the expense either of warmth — the coolness of those blue-grey tonalities notwithstanding, could anyone doubt that these two young men were friends? — or indeed of structure. Everything in the relationship between the panels of the door behind the figure, the round mirror over his head, the sheets of pinned-up paper and the slope of that resting body, all apparently so casual, even proleptically ‘photographic’, has surely been calculated with precision. For how else could it be the case that the viewer’s glance runs round and round, weighing up this and that, wondering at the balance of colour and tone — not really caught by the digital image to which I’ve linked above — incredulous that this initially rather informal-looking keepsake should, in fact, turn out to be a work of such slightly weird, distinctive brilliance?

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On the Museum of London’s new galleries

What does it say about the new exhibition space at the Museum of London that all the Museum’s own publicity — even the branding on their own website, e.g. here — refers to these as ‘the new £20 million Galleries of Modern London’, the ‘£20 million’ price tag conjoined with the galleries’ name as firmly as the constituent parts of some Homeric trope?

Not much, perhaps. Yet it’s worth going on to read the other claims the brief online synopsis makes for the Museum’s redesigned lower floor rooms:

Three years in the making, five new galleries tell the story of London and its people from 1666 to the present day. 7,000 objects, show-stopping interactives, specially designed family areas, film and changing displays transport you through the capital’s tumultuous history, rich with drama, triumph and near disaster.

As is so often the case with history, it’s the rhetorical colour that lingers long after what detail there is has begun to fade away — in particular, that familiar emphasis on novelty, abundance and spectacle.

Combine this with the launch of the Museum’s own iPhone app, Streetmuseum — and for those interested in the relationship between the launch of Streetmuseum and the opening of the new galleries, there’s a fascinating interview with the Museum of London’s marketing manager here — and the nature of the ‘repositioning’ underway here could hardly be more obvious. Out with the merely didactic displays, the rows of carefully-labelled items, silent and thoughtful contemplation of history’s wreckage, the dark romance of extreme street-by-street specificity and hard-won local knowledge — in with diversion, distraction, sensory skimming over the surface of a past at once highly generalised yet also fragmented into incoherence, projections both metaphorical and literal, noise, restlessness half-attention always in search of something marginally more interesting — in a word, ‘entertainment’, which is what the new exhibition space seems to be all about.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Galleries of Modern London have already proved an enormous success.

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‘Earth: Art of a changing world’ at the Royal Academy

Edward Burtynsky, 'Super Pit #4, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia', 2007, Chromogenic Colour Print. © The artist, courtesy Flowers, London

Edward Burtynsky, 'Super Pit #4, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia', 2007, Chromogenic Colour Print. © The artist, courtesy Flowers, London

‘Brave’ contemporary art or climate change agit-prop — which is more tiresome?

Such is the quandary with which, at least in theory, Earth: Art of a changing world presents visitors to the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens site, in the second of three annual GSK Contemporary seasons. If, in the event, Earth turns out to be something rather different from what either climate change sceptics or enthusiasts might reasonably have expected, the result is, nonetheless, revealing.

Don’t get me wrong. Earth isn’t without the odd pleasant surprise. For one thing, low expectations do pay good dividends. It’s still simply not that easy to gather together work by 34 artists without stumbling over something that merits at least brief consideration, perhaps even a degree of visual interest.

And then, even when faced with the reliable disappointment that is our contemporary art scene, there’s a point at which basic human sympathy starts to assert its own modest if stubborn demands.

Consider, just for a moment, the plight of the exhibition’s organisers. Faced with the need to bundle together a disparate job-lot of contemporary art in a manner unlikely to repel the out-of-town Christmas-shopping crowd who constitute so lucrative a slice of the RA’s winter audience, the Earth theme was, all things considered, a perfectly rational choice — capacious enough to include pretty much anything, of course, but also right-on enough to cast a flattering glow of moral rectitude across faces long since hardened by the rigours of several hours’ of full-throttle seasonal consumerism, while at the same time not excluding at least the possibility of ‘edginess’, that sparkling decorative flourish without which no contemporary art exhibition could ever be complete. Comprendre, c’est pardoner, this being the season of goodwill and everything. Continue reading

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Futurism at Tate Modern

Carlo Carrà, I funerali dell'anarchico Galli (1910-11), Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA

In the end, the secret of enjoying Tate Modern’s recent Futurism exhibition turned out to lie in the entertainment of modest, perhaps even downright low expectations.

Futurism‘s reviews were, almost without exception, dreadful. Some could be discounted, admittedly, in the sense that condemning the cutting-edge offerings of our great-grandparents’ mature years for the sole reason that these no longer shock or surprise us is the sort of idiocy best left where we found it. But what can we conclude when even Richard Dorment sets aside his habitual good manners, writing off the exhibition’s installation as ‘more or less incomprehensible‘? And what about the bracing spectacle of Brian Sewell in full denunciatory mode, clearly prompted not only by the fact that he does that particular mode so extraordinarily well, but also because, for once, the organisation of the show in question really and truly deserved it?

The critics were, for once, largely correct. In all sorts of ways, except perhaps in terms of the art itself, Futurism was an unsatisfactory experience. It was disappointing, for instance, to find that only something like eighty percent of the pictures on view at the Paris interation of the exhibition had made it as far as London, notable losses including Joseph Stella’s Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras (1913-14) and Marcel Duchamp’s Nu descendant un escalier n. 2 (1912). This, though, for all its discouraging gravity, was hardly the exhibition’s most serious defect.

The problem was much more elementary, and for that reason considerably less explicable. Perhaps the most basic requirement for any art exhibition is that it should somehow add up to more than the sum of its parts — the gathered objects somehow coaxed into telling a story, making a case or at least conveying an insight. Insofar as Futurism told any sort of story, however, it was one in which the Italian regional specificity of Marinetti’s Futurist movement was swapped for a blandly international smorgasbord including some rather good art that influenced the Italians, some rather weak art influenced by the Italians, and, if one wished to be cynical about it, a few Cubist masterpieces to boost the overall ‘oomph’ quotient, insofar as the rather dry and esoteric alchemies of analytic Cubism might be said to deliver something so coarse as an ‘oomph’. Continue reading

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On Rory Stewart’s ‘Occupational Hazards’

I wanted to build a gate for the souk as a permanent gift from the [Coalition Provisional Authority] to Amara, so that there would be at least one enduring trace of our presence. We discussed this with the governor, showed him photographs of traditional souk gates from Egypt to Kuwait, and suggested a competition for the design. The governor returned the next day with a design for a concrete arch, to be faced with bright modern bathroom tiles and fairy lights. Again we had to choose whether to empower the governor. We overruled him; the gate was never built.

Acknowledging failure is never an easy thing. It requires maturity, character and practice, so much so that the spectacle of seeing it done really well is strangely moving — at once levelling and liberating. This, for example, probably explains why even those of us who can’t stomach Orwell’s politics nevertheless regard Homage to Catalonia as a masterpiece. Effective rhetoric matters as much as sincerity: lack of bitterness is as important as the appearance of candour. Irony is necessary, up to a point, yet if taken too far becomes unwelcome, a distraction both from that necessarily wry, ‘what can I have been thinking?’ tone, but also from the flashes of real, still-raw anger, without which the whole exercise fails to persuade or convince.

By any standard, Rory Stewart’s Occupational Hazards (2006) deserves to be set alongside Homage to Catalonia. In September 2003, the 30-year old Stewart — an ex-diplomat whose almost uncannily assured, entirely compelling account of a journey on foot across part of Afghanistan, The Places In Between, appeared in June 2004 — was appointed deputy governor first of Amarah and then Nasiriyah, provinces in the marsh regions of southern Iraq, working on behalf of the occupying Coalition Provision Authority [CPA]. Continue reading

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