Tag Archives: art

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 Hogarth

The Shrimp Girl

William Hogarth, 'The Shrimp Girl' (c. 1740-45)

There’s an awful lot of error abroad in the world. And although it’s easy enough — sometimes, for practical reasons, even necessary — to ignore the great bulk of it, now and then there’s an instance of witlessness so egregious that swiping back it at somehow feels less like fun for its own self-indulgent sake than something dangerously close to that even rarer treat, an actual moral imperative.

Consider, for instance, Regina Hackett’s condemnation of William Hogarth, to which the wise and sharp-eyed Franklin Einspruch recently drew our attention. In the context of criticising another Seattle-based critic, Jen Graves, Ms Hackett wrote the following on her ArtsJournal-fostered blog:

Graves also wrote Danzker’s exhibit, William Hogarth: Nationalism, Mass Media and the Artist, was “awesome-sounding.” Awesome? Hogarth is an illustrator in the worst sense of the word. He belongs in picture books accompanying stories.

And when Jen Graves replied with a perfectly reasonable retort, ‘I cannot even address a person who dismisses Hogarth’ — returning us briskly to the observation, aired above, that error is often best ignored — Ms Hackett offered up this by way of reply (the links in the quotation are hers, by the way):

Maybe it’s generational. Nobody from my time and place countenances the didactical moralism of Hogarth, the 18th-century’s Norman Rockwell.  It’s hardwired. You can have them both, Jen.

Even in the dog-days of summer, gilt-edged idiocy of this standard simply can’t be left lying around on the internet where anyone might pick it up. Let’s get to work on it. Where, though, faced with such an embarrassment of riches, ought we to start?

‘Didactical moralism’ is, clearly, an invitingly soft target for dissection. Leave to one side, out of pity as much as anything else, a reproach to the sort of critical consciousness for whom ‘didactical’ must sound at least a syllable more impressive than the ‘didactic’ it needlessly replaces. Leave aside also what must surely be the wholly unfair suspicion that, in branding Hogarth an ‘illustrator’, Ms Hackett revealed her ignorance of Hogarth’s many portraits and conversation pieces, the Biblical and historical scenes, let alone his disconcertingly free, almost jarringly immediate studies in oils — not least, the well-known Shrimp Girl shown above, reminding us of de Kooning as much as it does of Rubens or Goya. Continue reading

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Fake politics

statue

What are we to make of Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire variously operating as media magnate, financier, real estate tycoon, owner of A. C. Milan, miscellaneous entrepreneur, frequent Prime Minister and probable future President (once he gets the rules changed, Putin-style) of the Italian Republic?

For the more incurious sort of British observer, it’s safe to embrace Sr Berlusconi as the basically satisfying punchline to the long-running joke that is, at least to those whose working model of international relations runs entirely off lazy national stereotypes, Italian postwar politics. On the more thoughtful Left, Sr Berlusconi is regarded with exactly the sort of enjoyable, companionable terror with which older children exchange grand guignol tales of serial killers — ‘the eagle of fascism soars‘, apparently, although it must be said that eagles are, by nature, rather more conspicuously monogamous than Sr Berlusconi. And on the Right, Sr Berlusconi gives pleasure through the consistency with which he stops Communists from winning elections, the temptations that he offered David Mills and — it’s an admirable trait which he shares with Lady Thatcher and shared with Ronald Reagan, but one that few these days even attempt to pull off — his ability to upset, to the point of hysterical derangement, the more plangently excitable left-of-centre commentariat. Continue reading

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‘Sickert in Venice’ at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Walter Sickert, The Horses of St Mark's (detail), Birmingham Art Gallery and Museums

Walter Sickert, The Horses of St Mark's (detail), c. 1905-06, Birmingham Art Gallery and Museums

It’s hard to know what to make of Walter Sickert (1860-1942), some of whose Venetian paintings and drawings make up Sickert in Venice, on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 7 June 2009.

Britain typically imagines its art historical tradition to be primarily pastoral, decorative or based in formal portraiture. Sickert scarcely registers on any of these indices. As an artist whose working career spanned seven decades, it’s hard to know where to place him amongst his contemporaries. His cultural identity is also confusing. The son of a Schleswig-Holstein-born artist father and a half-Irish, half-English mother, most of his childhood was spent in Munich; he was entirely at home in Dieppe and Paris, close not only to a mistress and illegitimate son but also to his teacher and mentor Degas; as the present exhibition attests, he lived in Venice, at the time an economical choice, for the better part of several years; his application of paint derived as much from Velasquez and Goya as from the examples of his actual teachers and contemporaries; the semi-American Whistler was variously his studio assistant, colleague and irritating competitor. Yet this most cosmopolitan, ‘European’ of artists nevertheless achieved his most notable success in depicting London — not an imperial, ceremonial or even picturesque vision of London, either, but the grubby unlovely Camden Town, quartier of music halls, bedsits and whores — with the sort of devoted obsessiveness unmatched by anyone else before or afterwards, Hogarth and Auerbach perhaps excepted. Continue reading

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Blasting and blessing: a Lemsip edition

It’s Friday. High-spirited young men with a gift for sponteneous song have been sent by Thames Water to excavate the pavements outside our house. Meanwhile, no amount of coffee, medication or indeed George Osborne-induced indignation seems likely to liberate me from the constraints of a cold that is, as you may soon have cause to observe, acting as noticeably upon my ability to tap out words in re-cog-nis-able En-glish as it is on my sinuses, lymph nodes and generalised will to remain upright. So, well, Palladio can wait. For today, this is will have to do.

Blast:
The laziest bit of public art commissioning in living memory. Having complained about it when it seemed only likely to happen, the defects of this project are no more venial on account of their sheer predictability. Of course the availability of sponsorship money from News International should surprise no one, as One and Other is, ultimately — the hallowed all-old rhetoric notwithstanding (says the artist: ‘My project is about trying to democratise this space of privilege, idealisation and control’, although if he hadn’t said it, everyone would have assumed he had anyway) — little more than a machine for generating outrage — and where there’s outrage, there’s publicity, right? Personally, I’d rather have spent the money on a pension for some ex-RBS hate-figure, if only because I truly don’t believe that there’s a banker on earth who’s as cynical as our Mr Gormley.

Bless:
A good decision. Well, clearly there was something a bit manipulative in the fact that it coincides with this, which may or may not be a good decision — I’ll leave that for people who know more about it all than I do. But these are lean times, as we’re learning, and so we’ll take our moments of admiration for the Obama administration where we can find them.

Bless:
Most of the human race, commentariat included, for treating this whole nonsense with the contempt it so lavishly deserves. Continue reading

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Waiting for Palladio

Palladio

Before long, I may even post a review of the Royal Academy’s fascinating if sporadically frustrating Andrea Palladio: His Life and Legacy, celebrating (only one year late) the quincentenary of the birth of the Paduan architect who, however indirectly, did more to shape Britain’s built environment than anyone else.

Until that moment arrives, however, here are two Palladio-related distractions.

The first is a new Palladio and Britain website, launched this week by the RIBA, currently enjoying their own 150th anniversary. Continue reading

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Jacobinical hyenas, we’re watching you

Samuel Palmer, 'The Herdsman's Cottage' (1850)

Samuel Palmer, 'The Herdsman's Cottage' (1850)

“The ricks burnt around Shoreham, within sight of Palmer‘s house, under the moons that he had painted broad and full. The moons charmed away neither fire nor reform, and on June 4th, 1832, the Reform Bill was passed the House of Lords. The anti-Reformers still saw some last hope in the General Election which followed in December, and while purple banners were being stitched for the Tory candidate in West Kent with the arms of the county, St. George and the Dragon and ‘King and Constitution’, Palmer left painting to gesticulate in print against the change and the future. Continue reading

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Land girls in Lymington: war art fights back

Evelyn Dunbar, 'Picking Sprouts - Monmouthshire' (Manchester City Art Galleries)

Evelyn Dunbar, 'Picking Sprouts - Monmouthshire' (Manchester Art Gallery)

On reflection, the venue for The Women’s Land Army – A Portrait was nothing short of inspired. The St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, located just off the High Street in Lymington, a modestly pretty market town and port just south of the New Forest, is in essence that very necessary and worthwhile thing, a local history collection — augmented, in this case, with two large rooms turned over to temporary art exhibitions. What more suitable context, then, for this compact yet compelling exhibition, doomed by its subject-matter to operate in the dangerous no man’s land dividing ‘history’ from ‘art’?

The history of the Women’s Land Army is recounted clearly and succinctly, both in the exhibition itself, and in the excellent accompanying catalogue. Other than commending this achievement, however, I don’t propose to say much more here about history per se.

For what clearly fascinated the exhibition organisers is the way in which the work of the Women’s Land Army was portrayed, notably during the course of the Second World War, under the auspices of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Meanwhile, what fascinates me is the present-day predicament of British war art — particularly of official British war art — which, for all its sometimes astonishingly high level of quality, is so rarely and grudgingly regarded as ‘proper’ art at all. Continue reading

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The Empire Strikes Back: Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy

Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Unknown artist, Incense burner in the shape of a church, 10th - 11th century. Photo: Procuratoria di San Marco/Cameraphoto Arte, Venice

Some civilisations vanish. Others endure, at least at the level of shorthand signifier, conjuring up in a single, highly-charged word vast networks of association — networks, it must be said, often weak on detail, depth or historical accuracy, yet boundlessly rich in the stuff of imaginative sympathy, normative distancing, moral disgust or approbation.

In that sense, Byzantium — the subject of the Royal Academy’s magnificent new exhibition Byzantium 330-1453 — is still very much with us. It never really went away. Contemporaries, both Muslim and western Christian, of the later Eastern Empire had obvious reasons for denouncing a major geopolitical rival as untrustworthy, cruel, effeminate and worldly — while retaining a sly regard for Byzantium’s imperial wealth, splendour and occasional military successes. Later, once republican Rome had again become the measure of all things, at least for reasonably well-educated people in Western Europe and dependent territories, it became possible to despise Byzantium simultaneously as a debased — which is to say, altered — form of classical civilisation, and at the same time, as unalterably despotic, reactionary, God-bothered and doomed. Its thousand-year history was reduced to nothing more than ‘a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery’, as Gibbon put it, sounding only slightly more enthusiastic about Byzantium than Montesquieu and Voltaire had done previously. And thus it was that, by the time at which Ruskin, Yeats and Cavafy all began to invoke Byzantium within the ambit of their own differently modernist writing, they did so more with reference to what Byzantium meant, that with what it might, at some point, actually have been.

It’s this tension — the ever-widening gap between the historical Byzantium and its literary, artistic and moral cognates — that lends the current Royal Academy exhibition a sharp polemical edge. Without it, the experience might well have added up only to 350 marvellous objects, most rare indeed and a few of them astonishingly beautiful, deployed theatrically across ten rooms, dimly lit, dressed with a light gloss of scholarly commentary and packed, even early in the morning, with far too many visitors — each of them presumably lost in the creation or revision of some inner, highly personal, differently-inflected version of ‘Byzantium’. Continue reading

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Change and decay (again)

Perhaps the most thought-provoking section of Rothko: The Late Series, the catalogue of Tate Modern’s eponymous exhibition, is the one that discusses the media in which Rothko’s later works were executed.

Rothko, it turns out, was what might generously be called ‘creative’ not only in his use of slubby cotton duck awning-fabric in place of canvas, but also in his methods of priming surfaces, and in his choices and layering of pigments and glazes. Traditional oil colours were layered with still-experimental ‘Magna’ acrylic paints (diluted with turpentine), acrylic resin sandwiched with egg and oil, dry pigment sometimes sprinkled directly onto wet paint or animal glue, matte and gloss surfaces built up and then buried under yet another all-but-imperceptible layer of thinned-down colour.

The result, of course, for anyone who actually bothers to look at it, is at once a self-evident reproach to purblind ‘a child could do that’ dismissals — the experimentation, stubborn persistence and unsparing self-criticism that went into producing these intensely man-made paintings remains perhaps their least debatable attribute — and also, at the same time, a sort of triumphant reduction of what an artist and his materials can achieve in concert, with nothing else much interfering. ‘Silence is so accurate,’ as Rothko put it, acknowledging as he did so the frequent failure of language — his own as well as his critics’ — in the face of his art.

Unfortunately, however, the result is also intrinsically unstable. Continue reading

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