Malevich at Tate Modern

The Tate seem to have a thing about artists whose names begin with M at the moment. The main temporary exhibition at the Liverpool Gallery features the work of Piet Mondrian and Nasreen Mohamedi, while the Tate Modern in London is showing major exhibitions by both Matisse and Kazamir Malevich. during my trip to London last week I managed to find some time for a couple of visits to the Tate so I can now tick all the M’s off my to do list.

Kazimir Malevich Black Square 1913

Of the exhibitions in London, although the Matisse had some beautiful works on display, the Malevich was definitely the best of the two. A retrospective covering the whole of his artistic life with a comprehensive selection of paintings and drawings and a room of contextual items – photographs, lesson plans and the like.

The exhibition traced his development as an artist – his rise and fall – in the context of the social and political upheavals in Russia during the first half of the 20th Century. Born during the reign of the Tsars he lived through the First world War, the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the rise of Stalinism. And his art reflected what was happening around him.

His early works in Room show how he was immersed in French Modern Art from the early years of the 20th Century through access to the art collections of two rich merchants in Moscow. His pictures show how he absorbed the influences of the Impressionists, Post_impressionists, early Picasso and Matisse and the Fauves, which can be detected in the paintings on display. Some of the paintings also show influences of traditional Russian religious art.

Self-Portrait (1908)

The second room showed how he built on all of these influences to develop a Russian Modernist style which concentrated on depicting Russian subjects. After 1910 he changed tack as Malevich and other Russian artists came under the influence of the Italian Futurists, absorbing their ideas but going on to develop their own interpretation of the Futurist approach, more radical than the Italians

What came next, however, was without precedent. At a time when the workers and peasants of Russia were struggling to overthrow the old, repressive order, and would go on to try to create a new society based on new ideals, Malevich was in the vanguard of a revolution in art that would overthrow all the established ideas and approaches.

Although I knew it was coming, it was still something of a shock to walk into the room where the Black Square and a small number of other, similar works were displayed. The complex cubo-futurist patterns had gone, replaced by canvases with only simple blocks of colour. This was Suprematism, “the painting of pure form” and “the supremacy of pure feeling”.

It is difficult for us today to appreciate just how revolutionary and shocking this reduction of painting to simple form and pure colour was in 1916. To understand how it came about we need to understand the tremendous upheaval taking pace in society in Russia at the time and view this art in that context. Malevich and his circle were revolutionaries in terms of their art but also their politics. Society was being turned upside down with the old structures and ways of doing things being overthrown and this is exactly what Malevich was doing. Malevich wrote in 1919

‘Painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it,’

I think this aspect is underplayed in the Tate’s analysis and explanation in the exhibition. Many of the avant-garde artists at the time were active particiapnts in the Revolution, producing posters and decorations for anniversaries, pageants, street theatre and agit-prop trains.

Malevich and the Suprematists continued to produce these works as the Russian Revolution progressed. This culminated in the paintings displayed in Room 8 – The End of Painting – my favourite room in the exhibition. The culmination of the approach was the creation of paintings with white on white such as White Suprematist Cross (1920-21). This room also contained a number of paintings where simple blocks of colour are starting to “dissolve” at one edge, perhaps representing how society itself was dissolving and disappearing.

Suprematist Composition- White on White, (1918)

But Suprematism could only go so far. I think it was inevitable that the Suprematists would take their art in new directions, building on what they had learned. That’s progess. Art like society doesn’t stand still. Unfortunately Russian Society started to move towards dictatorship culminating in the rise of Stalinism. Avant-garde art started to be seen as elitist. Malevich returned to painting figurative works, but they were were complex and semi-abstract. But in the 1930’s, under attack from the Stalinists who favoured “Socialist Realist” art, he returned to painting true figurative works, particularly portraits and there are many examples of these in the final room. But even then he stamped them with his own approach with many of them looking like Renaissance figures, so he was subverting Stalinist art in a subtle way.

Worker - Kazimir Malevich

His earlier works were too much for the Stalinists. They were banned and hidden away after he died in 1935. But his followers made a last stand, mourners at his funeral paraded with images of the black square.

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This was a marvellous exhibition I’d love to visit again. There was too much to absorb and digest in one sitting. But it demonstrated that Malevich was a great artist who could produce great works in whatever style he chose to work and was also responsible for creating a new style.

I went to see the Matisse cut-outs exhibition showing on the Second Floor the next day. That was good but the Malevich exhibition was by far the more interesting, thought provoking and exciting of the two.

The Gondola

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Well, I’ve never been to Venice, but I have been in a gondola – a steam Gondola anyway. It’s a restored boat, owned by the National Trust that operates on Coniston Water. Of course, we had to take a trip on it even if it isn’t free to National Trust members.

The boat was originally launched in 1859 having been built for the Furness Railway company who had a line that run into Coniston. The line was originally intended to convey materials from the mines and quarries in the area, but the company opened it up to passengers with the boom in tourism in the Lakes. The Gondola was an added attraction which no doubt made a few extra pounds for the company. The Gondola ran on the lake until 1936. It was converted to a houseboat in 1946 but eventually fell into disrepair. It was restored in the late seventies and came back into service in 1980.

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Trips on the lake leave from Coniston pier, a short walk from the village centre and the 45 minute “cruise” goes half way down the lake and then calls at Brantwood and Monk Coniston before returning to its departure point.

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Inside it’s origins as a vessel run by an Edwardian railway company are evident with it’s First and Second class lounges.

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Looking down on Liverpool

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Yesterday we went over to Liverpool for a day out on a reasonably sunny Sunday on a Bank Holiday weekend. While we were there, we decided to go up the St John’s Beacon (or, Radio City Tower as it’s known these days). The tower, which was built in the late 60’s, originally had a rotating restaurant at the top and the observation deck was in the open air on top of that. It was closed in 1983 and was unoccupied for a number of years. It was refurbished between 1998  and 2000 adding an additional floor where the outside observation deck used to be, re-opening as the studios of Radio City, the local commercial radio station. An indoor observation deck was opened to the public in 2012. On a good day like yesterday it affords great views over the city.

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I’d been up before – 37 years ago when I was at University in the city. It was a bit different in those days. I remember stating outside in the open air and looking over a city that was much more depressed than today. there’s been a lot of development since then when the Albert Dock was deserted and dilapidated, Liverpool One wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of the Duke of Westminster and the new buildings to the north of the city centre and near the University didn’t exist.

This is the view of the tower from St John’s Garden behind St George’s Hall. For a short while the sunlight was illuminating the bottom half of the tower making it appear to glow against the grey sky. The photograph doesn’t fully capture the effect.

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Some views from the top of the tower.

Looking down over the developments during the city’s “golden age” during the Victorian period – St George’s Hall, the “World Museum”, Library, Walker Art Gallery ad Crown Court.

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A couple of shots out over towards the pier head and the “Three Graces” and the Albert Dock

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The Catholic cathedral with my old University behind.

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The Anglican Cathedral

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Looking over the city out towards the sea

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Hepworth at Abbot Hall

Barbara Hepworth - At work on the plaster for Oval Form (Trezion)

Barbara Hepworth – Within the Landscape is the latest exhibition showing at the Abbot Hall gallery in Kendal. We called in to see it on the way back home from our recent holiday in the Lake District. As the Gallery’s website tells us

Apart from Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective at Tate Liverpool in 1994, this is the first significant exhibition of her work in the North West for over sixty years

A large number of her works, mainly sculptures but also some prints, were displayed in the rooms on the first floor which are used for the gallery’s temporary exhibitions, but there were also three larger sculptures  on the ground floor. There was also a display of photographs of and related to Barbara Hepworth in another one of the rooms upstairs.

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Oval Form (Trezion) 1961-3

Abbot Hall doesn’t allow photography but they do have a number of photographs of the some of the works on display on their website. Some of the pictures used in the publicity for the exhibition show sculptures outdoors and this made me expect that some would be sited at Blackwell, as was the case with their exhibition of works by Lynn Chadwick last year, but that isn’t the case. they’re all indoors at the gallery in Kendal – except for the sculpture owned by Abbot Hall which stands on the lawn in front of the entrance to the Gallery (picture above- nothing to stop me snapping that one!). A pity, as the larger works, in particular, would be enhanced by being located outdoors in changing, natural light, rather than in the stark light of the gallery. And on the lawn at Blackwell it would be possible to observe the work from all angles, a problem with some of the works indoors and I noticed that a number of visitors had commented on this in the Visitor’s book. I have to say I agree with them, but a relatively minor quibble as I enjoyed the exhibition very much. It had a good selection of works, many of which I hadn’t seen before as they had been loaned by private collections.

This later work, Summer Dance (1972) greeted visitors to the Gallery as it was located in the entrance hall. It’s a very typical Hepworth work with large “curvaceous” pieces “punctured” with large holes. At first I though it was carved from wood, but on closer inspection it was apparent that it was cast in metal. The surface treatment was particularly attractive. A light silver on the front, but a darker bronze colour on the back.

Barbara Hepworth - Summer Dance, 1972

There were examples of works in other media – stone, wood and thin metal plate, the latter sometimes twisted and manipulated into complex shapes, such as Forms in Movement (Galliard) (1956), made from a single copper sheet.

Forms in Movement (Galliard)

This is another one made from thin sheet metal, but in this case incorporating the strings which are a common feature of her work.

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Stringed Figure (Curlew), 1956

I rather liked this simple work,  Disc with strings (Moon) from 1969

Disc with Strings (Moon) 1969, BH484

From a private collection, one of the loan conditions probably accounted for it being displayed in a perspex box. This led to some interesting effects due to light being refracted through the joins in the box and illuminating parts of the sculpture.

The smooth, curved forms of many of Hepworth’s sculptures, like this one carved from Nigerian wood, are crying out to be touched and caressed – strictly forbidden of course!

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Configuration (Phira) (1955)

There were several stone sculptures too, including this one, a large piece carved from a distinctive two-tone coloured Ancaster stone

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Rock Face (1973)

It stood out for me as it’s large rectangular form was rather “masculine” and rather different from the curvaceous works she typically produced.

There were also a number of prints which we’d seen before as they were on loan from the Hepworth in Wakefield who had them on display until recently (and where I snapped some photos).

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Porthmeor (1969)

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Genesis (1969)

So another excellent exhibition at the Abbot Hall. a good survey of Hepworth’s oeuvre, showing works in all the main media she worked in with a good number that are not normally on display to the public, so there was something new even for someone who is very familiar with Hepworth’s work. It is manageable too. A good number of works, but not too many to take in during a visit and enough to make me want to go for another look in the near future. I understand that the Tate are to hold a retrospective of Hepworth’s work next year. I’m sure that will be good too, but it’s likely to be much larger and more overwhelming. That’s one of the things I like about Abbot Hall – good exhibitions which leave you feeling satisfied but not overstuffed and overwhelmed which is often the case with the “blockbusters” in London.

Coniston Hall

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Many years ago during my first visit to Coniston, I stayed at the Coniston Hall campsite, which is in the woods on the shore of Coniston Water, south of Coniston Hall. The old manor house, which dates from the 16th Century when it was owned by the Fleming family, is still standing,  The west north east wing is in ruins but the rest of the building is relatively intact, the east wing being still occupied by farm tenants. The central part of the building, which at one time would probably have been the “great hall” appears to have been converted into a barn at some stage with the earth bank built to allow access to a barn door in the centre of the wall, turning it into a traditional Lakeland “bank barn”.

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The style of the house has many other features common to Lakeland vernacular architecture – stone walls and a slate roof and very characteristic, tall cylindrical chimneys which we saw on a number of houses in the area. Tall chimneys were, apparently, a means of flaunting wealth, rather like people who drive flash cars these days.

The house  has been designated by English Heritage as a Grade II* listed building and today is owned by the National Trust, although it’s not open to the public.

Dazzle on Thames

In July, during a visit to Liverpool we saw the “Dazzle Ship” moored in the dry dock near the Albert Dock. During my visit to London this week, during a walk along the Southbank heading to Tate Modern, I spotted another one. The London Dazzle ship is moored west of Blackfriars Bridge. It’s a WW1 warship, HMS President, built in 1918 and has been painted by the German artist Tobias Rehberger.

Inspired by the Vorticist art movement, Dazzle wasn’t intended to conceal a ship but to confuse the enemy – to make it difficult for them to estimate its type, size, speed, and heading by disrupting their visual rangefinders.

Both ships have been “dazzled” as part of the commemoration of the start of the Great War. They’re not accurate represenatations, but a modern interpretation. The London one, in particular, painted in black and white rather than bright colours and with some figurative elements rather than random abstract patterns that were painted on the real ships.

 

 

 

Schwitters in Ambleside

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A blog post by Barbara of Milady’s Boudoir alerted me to the Armitt Library in Ambleside. So it was on my list of places to visit during our recent holiday in the Lake District. It’s an interesting little place. A library on the top floor and museum on the ground floor.

The Armitt Library was founded by Mary Louisa Armitt in 1909 and formally opened following her death in 1912. It was intended as a resource for the local scholarly community and incorporated the Ambleside Book Society founded in 1828 and the Ambleside Ruskin Library, which dates from the 1890s. The reference library on the first floor is free to use and houses a wealth of books on the local area and its history.

The main exhibition was about the life of Beatrix Potter and her drawings of fungi. It was well curated and reading about Beatrix we were also able to learn a few things about life in the Lake District at the beginning of the 20th Century. But my main motivation for visiting the museum was to see the permanent exhibitions of works by Kurt Schwitters, the German abstract artist who lived in and around Ambleside for the last few years of his life.

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Originally on the fringes of the German Dadaist movement, Scwitters invented the concept of Merz

‘the combination, for artistic purposes of all conceivable materials’.

He used any materials he could find – paper, cardboard, scraps of print, bits of wood, string, cotton wool, bus tickets and anything else that came to hand – incorporating them into abstract collage, installation, poetry and performance.

Learning that he was wanted by the Gestapo for an “interview” in 1937 he fled to Norway but when the Nazis invaded in 1940 he had to flee again, this time to Britain. Initially he was interred as an “enemy alien” in Scotland and then the Isle of Man. He was released in November 1941, moving first to London and then, in 1945, settling in the Lake district. He died in 1948.

Although his real interest was in creating his three dimensional collages, he was an accomplished figurative artist and used to paint portraits of local people and landscapes of the area to try and earn a few bob. The Armitt have managed to collect several of these and have others on loan and they constitute the main part of the exhibition, although they also have a few example of Merz.

This is his painting of Bridge House in Ambleside, a tourist attraction now owned by the National Trust and which stands almost directly opposite the Armitt.

bridge-house by Scwitters

This is my photograph of the building

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I enjoyed looking at the paintings as they gave an insight into the artist who had to reel them off to make some money. However,it’s his Merz works that single him out as a significant artist. His collages didn’t impress the locals. But he did manage to win prizes in the local art show for some of his conventional paintings of flowers. 

Flight”(1945). From the Abbot Hall collection.

Kurt Schwitters - Flight