Archive for the 'art' Category

Quentin and Roald

5 February 2017

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I’ve always loved Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s children’s books. They are the way we see these stories: the two men are joined together in the same way as A.A. Milne and E.H. Shephard, or Lewis Carroll and J.C.Tenniel.

For a few weeks more (until 1st May) the British Library is displaying a set of 10 further portraits of Dahl characters that were commissioned from Blake to mark the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth in 2016.

No claims for the quality of these images, snapped on a phone.

In a note that accompanies this small (and free) exhibition, Blake says,

The Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits ask you to imagine that a number of Dahl’s characters have been invited to come and sit for their portrait; they are depicted, not quite as they appear in the illustrations, but more formally. The perceptive spectator may notice that one celebrated couple declined to appear together, and another formidable personality obviously disapproved of the whole venture. Nevertheless, I hope you will be happy to see this group of well-known characters treated as though they were real people—which, of course, to many of us they are.

Anyway, Charlie is at the top of the post, and here are two more of the characters that did turn up for their new portraits. Matilda, of course:

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And Danny, the Champion of the World, with his father.

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English landscape

10 December 2016
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Image: Richard Long

 

I am in Cambridge from time to time, and stumbled across the small gallery that Downing College has opened just behind its porter’s lodge. The current exhibition–its third–has borrowed works from Kettles Yard (currently closed for rebuilding) and Richard Long to create an exhibition themed around the idea of landscape.

Kettles Yard being Kettles Yard, there’s a fine selection of British 20th century painters here, from Ben and Winifred Nicholson to John Piper to David Jones to their contemporary Christopher Wood, who died young. One of the most striking paintings in the exhibition is by L. S. Lowry. He’s obviously better known for his industrial images, but used to retreat to Cumbria and the Peak District to recharge. The lake appears in several of his paintings and is likely to be imagined rather than real, a sense of a landscape.

Lowry, Laurence Stephen, 1887-1976; Mountain Lake

LS Lowry. Mountain Lake, 1943. Kettles Yard Collection.

The exhibition is, perhaps literally, overlooked by the Richard Long painting at the top of the post, which has been constructed on the end wall of the rectangular gallery space. I love everything about this: the Dylanesque title, the shape, the choice of typography.

Richard Long’s work has evolved over the years from physical representations of his walks and rearrangment of the landscape. The textworks, of which No Direction Known is one, internalise the landscape, as we always do when we’re out in such places: we are in the landscape, but the landscape is also in us.

Now’s the time

18 January 2016

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I collected a small print of Basquiat’s picture Now’s the time from the framers at the weekend. I’d bought it at the Guggenhein in Bilbao in the summer, when I visited the  exhibition of his works there. It was displayed there with a loop of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, made at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He uses the phrase as a recurring motif in one of the most important passages in the speech (my emphasis):

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

Both Basquiat and King, of course, were drawing explicitly or implicitly on a famous track by Charlie Parker, recorded in 1945. Yes, the image is of Miles Davis, who also played on the session.

In his Parker biography Bird Lives! Ross Russell describes the track.

“Now’s The Time” is catchy and unforgettable, yet difficult to repeat. It has the extra-dimensional quality that distinguishes master works, however small. It is timeless. Its three minutes seem much longer. Ot is perfectly balanced, perfectly logical, haunting, eerie, the finest achievement of the boppers to that point. [p196]

There are other versions, but what for me connects this first recording to the MLK speech is the insistent piano at the the beginning, which demands the listener’s attention in the same way that King demands your attention as he repeats the phrase in that passage.

And one of the things I like about it is that part of that demand comes from the way that King breaks the so-called “rule of three,” and uses the phrase four times. Just when you think he’s going to move on, he insists that you hear it again. One more technical note: the use of a triad implies a completeness in the idea, but King’s rhetorical point is that the Civil Rights movement has not completed its work. He spells this out in the next paragraph of the speech (again, my emphasis):

This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.

“Now’s The Time” was recorded by Parker on 26th November 1945, and as far as the record label Savoy was concerned, this was the session at which the bebop sound clicked. (“The definitive session”, says Ross Russell.) This was despite the chaotic start to it. By Russell’s account, Thelonious Monk was supposed to play piano, but didn’t show, and Argonne Thornton, who happened to be in a nearby cafe, was drafted in. Gillespie was under contract to someone else, so he played uncredited. Miles Davis was nineteen, still at Juillard. Parker was late, and when he did arrive his reeds developed a squeak and a messenger was sent to midtown to get hold of spares.

And it attracted awful reviews. The jazz magazine Downbeat reviewed “Now’s The Time” together with “Billie’s Bounce”:

These two sides are excellent examples of the other side of the Gillespie craze – the bad taste and ill-advised fanaticism of Dizzy’s uninhibited style. Only Charlie Parker, who is a better musician and who deserves more credit than Dizzy for the style anyway, saves these from a bad fate. At that he’s far off form … This is the sort of stuff that has thrown innumerable impressionable young musicians out of stride, that has harmed many of them irreparably. [Ross Russell, p197]

Downbeat’s practice was to rate records on a scale of four down to one: the reviewer refused to rate “Now’s The Time”. But for his part, almost twenty years on, King knew his jazz. A year after the Lincoln Memorial speech he was at the Berlin Jazz Festival as the guest of Willy Brandt, then the mayor of West Berlin, and wrote an essay for the programme:

When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument. It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by jazz musicians.

Basquiat came back to Parker as a subject repeatedly during his short career, as explained in a fine post on the blog The Genealogy of Style. Here’s another picture, made two years before Now’s The Time, which celebrates that 1945 Savoy session.

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The Basquiat exhibition had mixed reviews: Griselda Murray Brown in the Financial Times found it “a fine retrospective,” while Jason Farago, reviewing it for The Guardian in Toronto, thought it sometimes patronising and over-interested in celebrity. Brown liked the used of the King recording; Farago hated it. For my part, I realised that I’d skimmed too many glossy magazine articles about Basquiat and his work, and assumed (wrongly, I now realised) that he was a street artist who had lucked into some ’80s New York radical chic. Instead I found work that was both edgy and relevant, unlike the Jeff Koons retrospective running elsewhere in the Guggenheim, which was about as interesting in 2015 as the work of Edwin Landseer.

One final note. King, of course, was assassinated at 39, five years after the speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Basquiat died of an overdose at the age of 27, three years after he made the “Now’s the time” image. Parker, who sold all the rights to the song for $50, cash in hand at the session, died at 34, nine years after the session. For all of them: now was the time.

Small acts of resistance

28 September 2014

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One of Neil MacGregor’s 10 objects that define modern Germany, in the Guardian this weekend, is the inscription on the gates of Buchenwald concentration camp, Jedem das Seine. Of course, the Nazis liked their improving slogans, and those on the gates of the concentration camps are particularly dark. Jedem das Seine is a German translation of a Latin phrase that means, “To each what they are due.”

But the reason it is in Neil MacGregor’s collection is that the sign was made by Franz Ehrlich, a Communist imprisoned in Buchenwald. Ehrlich had trained at the Bauhaus, hated by the Nazis for its internationalism and modernism. The typeface he chose for the sign was a Bauhaus font; the camp authorities either didn’t know or didn’t care.

MacGregor reads this as a kind of quiet act of resistance – associating the words with another German history, since they are also the title of a Bach cantata composed nearby – although a more unforgiving interpretation positions Ehrlich as a collaborator who betrayed the ideals of the Bauhaus. I don’t think that this is correct: Ehrlich, who survived the war, was initially conscripted to work for the SS as a designer, but then spent two years in a Wehrmacht Penal Division (yes, the clue is in the name). After the war he moved to the GDR, where he worked on the reconstruction of Dresden.

And the slogan seems to have been a curse for the camp’s commanders. The first one, Karl-Otto Koch, was arrested by the Nazis and executed for an assortment of crimes, including incitement to murder, embezzlement, corruption, among other things. The second, Hermann Pister, was sentenced to death for war crimes, but died of a heart condition first.

The image is from Jewish Currents, and is used with thanks. Germany: Memories of a Nation opens at the British Museum on 16 October.

Frink’s men

14 April 2013

The works I know of by the British sculptor and printmaker Elisabeth Frink were her birds and animals, which always seems tough and scrawny, like the battered animal that eventually triumphs in Edwin Muir’s poem The Combat. Her horses, as well. But Woking’s Lightbox Gallery has a retrospective of her work (it runs through to Sunday 21st April) that marks the 20th anniversary of her death, and I realised that I’d pretty much missed the second half of her career.

The most striking sculptures in the exhibition are her large male figures (the ones pictured are in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park); one of the rooms has four of them walking abreast across the gallery floor, which certainly catches the eye. a fifth figure is seated at the side, looking on.

Why so striking? Partly just their scale, for they are larger than humans, perhaps seven-and-a-half feet tall rather than six, and also their mass; they are recognisably human but somehow more than human as well. Frink said she preferred sculpting the bodies of men to women because she found women’s bodies to be somehow formless – although she used this lack of form to her advantage in her commission for Salisbury Cathedral (Click on the image to enlarge).

Frink was a supporter of the charity Amnesty International, which works on behalf of prisoners of conscience, and her head and shoulders bust Goggle Head (below) uses mass in a more sinister way, concealing the face of a man behind goggles in a way that reminds me why aviator glasses are often used by people who wish to intimidate. The contrast with the quizzical and slightly vulnerable faces of the Walking sculptures at the top of this post is striking.

And the Lightbox – also the home to the Ingram Collection of modern British art – is free to enter, a welcome feature in these austere times.

Images from top to bottom: Top, from Martin Goodman’s blog So You Want To Be.A Writer; the Walking Madonna is from the blog Healing This Wounded Earth; Goggle Head is from the Tate. All are used with thanks.

Exciting the imagination

24 December 2011

I don’t like the Royal Academy – it’s snooty, uptight, over-sponsored yet still expensive – but despite this I went this week to see their exhibition, Building the Revolution, about the art and buildings of the Russian revolutionary era, and in particular to see the scaled-down version of Tatlin’s Tower in the (sponsored) courtyard. The Tower, famously, was only an idea, and never built, but it was intended to be both a monument to the revolution and also a working building, the home of the Third International, the organisation to promote communism internationally. As a blog at RIBA notes, it would have

had four rotating elements inside (all rotating at different speeds) to house an information centre, meeting rooms, offices and a radio transmitter which all would have served as the headquarters of the Third International.

The scale version built for the Royal Academy is 10 metres high, a 1:40 scale model of a Tower that Tatlin imagined would be 400 metres high, taller than the Eiffel Tower, spanning the river Neva in St. Petersburg, as a picture at the RA conveyed. (The image here is from a 1999 CGI reconstruction by the Japanese artist Takehiko Nagakura.) In a Russia wracked by war and then civil war the chances of securing enough steel to build it were less than zero. The mechanics were complex too; the engineers who made a reconstruction for the Hayward in 1971 had to work them out from first principles, since there are few records of the original design. Indeed, had it been built, it’s likely that the mechanics of the building would have failed – the Russian constructivists quite often found that their ideas outstripped the limits of what was then technically possible.

In Tatlin’s lifetime, his Tower was realised only as a 15 foot high scale model, which was shown in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The picture of this model, and the one above, come from John Coulthart’s { feuilleton } blog. Even so, it fired the enthusiasm of his contemporaries: Viktor Shklovsky, the critic, reported on seeing Tatlin’s model, ‘The monument is made of iron, glass and revolution.’

Indeed, the design was inherently political. As Catherine Merridale writes:

The marvels of technology were one theme, but movement was another … as well as reflecting the dynamism of the dawning age, the building could double as a slow-moving calendar and clock, perhaps even as a means of measuring stars and space. In its restlessness and transparency, the building embodied the democratic challenge to authoritarian power that Tatlin so welcomed.

Tatlin’s unbuilt Monument has fascinated artists, critics, and maybe utopians ever since he designed it: I’m writing about it here more than 90 years after he conceived it, which I wouldn’t be had it actually been built. I was at an exhibition in Estonia earlier this year at which the artist Petko Dourmana had constructed an augmented reality piece in which the Tower was projected onto the cityscape of Tallinn. In some ways, such a virtual representation seems a fittingly democratic way to see Tatlin’s Monument. The purpose of the unbuilt building, after all, is to excite the imagination.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Battle of Britain Day

16 September 2010

My father in law, Denis Robinson, was a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain, so its dates have a particular family resonance. I wanted to mark the 70th anniversary of the decisive day – on the 15th September – with Paul Nash’s famous painting, which seems to capture the intensity of the Luftwaffe’s last great assault, a day when, at one time, all of the RAF’s 176 serviceable planes were in the air. In real life, it’s a large canvas, with lots of detail; well worth visiting the Imperial War Museum to see.

Denis is best-known amongst Battle of Britain historians for the photograph he took of his own plane, nose down in a field outside Wareham, after he’d crash-landed it after being hit by a German plane. Given that the great fear of all pilots was that the plane would catch fire, and explode, I’ve always admired his presence of mind in taking the photograph. Afterwards he walked to a local pub where he was given brandy. The BBC recently interviewed him about his experiences in the Battle of Britain (scroll down for the audio).

‘The Battle of Britain’, by Paul Nash’ hangs in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, and I have used their image of it with thanks.

Breaking the rules

1 May 2010

One of the rules of the Guggenheim in Bilbao is ‘no photography’, at least anywhere inside. I can understand rules about not photographing paintings – flash damages pigment colour – but the design of the Guggenheim, with its curves and spaces, creates interesting angles that people want to photograph.

The result is a kind of guerilla photography, in which visitors drift into spaces, look around them, click furtively, then move away before one of the officious women attendants sees you and reminds you about the rule. (They are all women, apparently engaged in some strange social experiment about the nature of public authority inspired, perhaps, by Prisoner Cell Block H.)

The picture at the top? An illicit photograph, taken by me, of a pattern on a wall thrown by a skylight. And published here under a Creative Commons licence.

The Matter of Time

4 April 2010

What hits you first about ‘The Matter of Time’, Richard Serra’s permanent installation at the Guggenheim, is its breathtaking scale. There are eight pieces, all rolled from sheet steel, each around four metres high and dozens of metres long. What hits you second is its sheer playfulness; there’s not a vertical line in the place, its all angled curves, and we are so used to vertilinear world that this is immediately disorienting. Some of the pieces invite you in; others invite you to pass through them, and I can’t remember the last time I saw so many kids having so much fun in an art gallery.

The other aspect of the work is that, at least in part, Serra seems to have conceived it as a sculptor’s rebuke to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim’s design, and the sculptural claims made about his building. (This may be personal; according to Robert Hughes, there’s “considerable animosity” between the two men.) As you listen to Serra on the gallery’s audio guide, he explains that architects who describe their curved exteriors as sculptural are merely using the form as ornament, because the curvilinear shapes sit on a rectilinear frame. It is, he says dismissively, ‘surface as scene-making’.

The image at the top of this post is a public domain picture from wikimedia.org, and is used with thanks.

Technique as resistance

29 April 2009

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Spare a thought for Aleksandr Rodchenko, who spent a decade or more as a leading light in the Constructivist school of painting. But he then decided that being a constructivist and a painter was incompatible; art needed to have a material base. He turned instead to photography, design,montage, even advertising. But what to do with all of those paintings? According to the current exhibition at the Tate:

When I look at the numbers of paintings I have painted, I sometimes wonder what I shall do with them. It would be a shame to burn them, there is over ten years of work in them. But they are as useless as a church. They serve no purpose whatsoever. [1927, Novyi LEF No. 6]

There are parallels between Rodchenko and Shostakovich. Both were leading innovators in the post-revolutionary period; both fell foul of Stalin’s ‘Soviet Realism’ period, and had to make amends for their previous ‘formalism’ during the ’30s; but both escaped the camps and outlived the Great Leader.

What’s also interesting is that although at first sight their more ‘realist-friendly’ work appears to be a retraction, it is not exactly as it seems. In Shostakovich’s case the 5th Symphony was a tuneful contrast to the more challenging 4th (criticised in Pravda, apparently on Stalin’s direct authority). Rodchenko, for his part, ended up photographing the forced labourers building the White Sea canal.

Both have been criticised for this (it’s customary for Rodchenko to be accused of ‘propaganda’, usually by people who haven’t lived through having friends and relatives sent to camps or killed in well-organised state terror). In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross explains that the 5th is full of musical clues: quotations from and references to the 4th which would pass by the untrained listener, references to a previous setting of a Pushkin poem about the legacy of the artist, and “an apparent allusion to Mussorgsky’s Boris Gudunov, the ultimate pageant of Russian suffering.”

For his part, Rodchenko’s canal pictures, at least to this viewer, do emphasise scale,  but they are also framed to emphasise distance and indicate power relationships within the shot. At the very least, they make the picture ambiguous, as in the example below. Both men used their mastery of technique as a form of resistance, inscribing clues – for those who could read them – for later generations.

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The photograph of the Rodchenko painting, ‘Suprematist Composition’, 1918, at the top of this post comes from Rodchenko pages on Art Experts Inc. There’s a huge Shostakovich resource here.