Lynn Chadwick at Abbot Hall and Blackwell

Last Saturday we headed up the M6 to visit the exhibition of works by Lynn Chadwick – Lynn Chadwick – Evolution of Sculpture – showing at the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal with some additional larger works from later in his careers being displayed at Backwell, The Arts and Crafts House, a few miles away near Windermere. Despite setting out reasonably early, the Motorway was still quite busy being the Bank Holiday and slowed to a standstill a couple of times, but only for a minute or so and we arrived in Kendal mid morning.

We really enjoyed the exhibition. I’ve seen a few pieces by Lynn Chadwick in other galleries (including the Hepworth at Wakefield) but here we were able to see how his work developed via a large number of pieces covering most of his career.

There were some particularly appealing pieces. His work was on the margins of abstract and figurative, many of his sculptures being based on humans and animals. In the entrance hall there were three beautiful life size abstract figures – the three Electras – cast in bronze, most of the surface had a heavy patina except for a square on the front – the breasts and naval – which was highly polished. It was a part of the casting, not a separate piece welded on. It was just the finish that was different. They were a dramatic introduction to the exhibition.

© Lakeland Arts Trust

The Three Electras by Lynn Chadwick (Picture source Abbot Hall website)

The main part of the exhibition was on the first floor. There was a good selection of works with some very interesting pieces including a mobile (he started out making these) weird, fantastic beasts, abstract pieces, abstract humans (we particularly liked the Teddy Boy and Girl) and winged / cloaked figures. All very different from the more sinuous, sensuous, flowing sculptures produced by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth during the same period.

The art historian Herbert Read when discussing the strange beasts and other forms created by Chadwick Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage, who exhibited together at the 1952 Venice Biennale described their style as as the ‘geometry of fear’ 

‘These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance….Here are the images of flight, or ragged claws "scuttling across the floors of silent seas", of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear…. These British sculptors have given sculpture what it never had before our time – a linear, cursive quality.’ (source here)

There was also a video showing about the artist and his working methods. I found that interesting as he worked in a much different way to say Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. He started by building a skeleton from metal rods (armature) welding them together then filling in the gaps with Stolit, a mixture of plaster and iron filings  so his technique was constructive, building up from scratch rather than cutting away material which is what sculptors working in stone and wood do. And he didn’t particularly plan the works. He had a rough idea which developed as his work on a sculpture progressed. One of the talking heads in the video compared his method to drawing in 3D with the armatures, inserting them, trying different arrangements, cutting away pieces, as he worked. There were some drawings but they seem to have been done after the work was completed rather than as preparatory sketches. I found his way of working quite interesting as it was different from other sculptors.

At Blackwell there were a number of larger works that were displayed outdoors in the grounds of the house. They were from later in his career and, overall, I thought they were less interesting, and less typical of his signature style, than those on display at Abbot Hall. But it did give an insight into how his work developed.

My favourite was this piece of two women walking up and down stairs that was displayed outside the entrance to the house‘

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Women walking into the wind with their hair and clothing billowing behind them is a recurring theme in Chadwick’s work. This is a later example. The dress blowing behind makes the figure look like a strange cross between a human and a chicken.

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This work of seated male and female figures  (Sitting Couple) reminded me of Henry Moore’s “King and Queen”

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and they had a great view, especially on a nice sunny day

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Uwe Wittwer at Abbott Hall

During our trip to Kendal last Saturday we called into the Abbot Hall Gallery to take at look at the new exhibitions that have been installed since Christmas. The main exhibition on at the moment, “In the Middle Distance”  features works by a Swiss artist, Uwe Wittwer, who produces images that blur the boundary between figurative and abstract art. I’d had a brief "recce" on the web to check out his work and wasn’t expecting to like them too much,but I was very pleasantly surprised. Many of the works were either re-interpretations of paintings by Old Masters, such as Gainsborough and Constable, or computer manipulations of old photographs, he’d “found” on the Internet.

The first room was devoted to watercolours inspired by paintings by “Old Masters”. I particularly liked the "negative" of a Gainsborough portrait of a group of children. In the reinterpretation the children looked as if they were black, subverting the image of wealthy white children in the Georgian period.

Source: Flickr © All rights reserved by cuedit

He had also produced a reinterpretation of one of Abbot Hall’s prized possessions, the seventeenth-century triptych, The Great Picture, which shows Lady Anne Clifford at various stages in her life her parents and siblings, especially for the exhibition. It dominated the middle of the three galleries.

A number of computer manipulated photographs which were printed out with an inkjet printer were displayed in the third gallery. Again they were relatively large in scale. The exhibition booklet tells us about his methodology:

He hunts for suitable material in a state of reverie, browsing the Internet until the right image presents itself, some crucial element resonating and suggesting possibilities. The process is far from being purely mechanical, however, with each image being extensively manipulated and reworked by Wittwer, who has commented that his inkjets (each one unique) can take as
long as his watercolours or oils to produce.

He has created monochrome, blurred, ghostly images. I couldn’t help projecting my own interpretation of what they were. A large "negative" of children riding on a carousel came across as the horsemen of the apocalypse to me and another picture of a boat made me think of Charon, the boatman who ferried the dead over the Styx.

122008: "Boot" (Boat), 2008, Inkjet,180 x 150 cm

Uwe Wittwer Boat (2008) Inkjet on paper 180 x 150 cm
© The Artist

This picture included large dots, the edges spreading out like ink blots. They featured in a number of the works, both the photographic images and the watercolours, including his version of The Great Picture.

I particularly liked his picture “Three Sisters”, created using a photograph of three young women taken somewhere in Middle Europe (East Prussia?) in the late 1930’s, before the Second World War.

Three Sisters (2008) Source: Flickr © All rights reserved by cuedit

The booklet accompanying the exhibition compares the image to a faded family photograph, but to me they resembled ghosts; grey, half transparent figures against a darker, more substantial background. Their dark eyes peering out towards the viewer, almost seeming to look right through us.

I wasn’t so sure about Black Sun after Antonioni, also shown in the third gallery. It consisted of 78 framed watercolour ‘stills’ from the cult British film from the sixities, Blowup, that starred David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles.

Overall I thought it was an inspiring exhibition with some very interesting paintings and particularly atmospheric photographic based images.  It was well worth the visit and, for me, illustrated that art should, ideally, be experienced “live” rather than relying on looking at reproductions in books or images on the Internet.

Matisse Artist’s Books at the Walker Art Gallery

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I’ve been working in Liverpool all week and on Friday, as we finished early, I called into the Walker Art Gallery on route to Lime Street station.

They’re currently showing an exhibition of artist’s books by Matisse, and it closes at the end of April, so I popped in to take a look. As usual it was free entry.

The Art Books of Henri Matisse

Like many artists, Matisse worked in different media and would try his hand with various techniques. He created around a dozen  “livre d’artiste” (artist’s books) – illustrated books published as collectible, limited editions. One of the first example of an artist’s book is William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience which merges drawings with hand written text

Illustrations from four books created by Matisse are on show in the exhibition. They’re not displayed as complete books though, rather individual pages are mounted and framed and hung on the walls.

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Cover of Jazz (1947) showing Le clown source Wikipedia

Probably the most well known images are from Jazz, which was published in 1947. Matisse created the images using the paper cut-out technique that he developed in his later years. The publisher then reproduced them using the “pochoir” stencilling technique. The same gouache paints used by the artist were then applied through the stencil to produce the highly coloured prints.

Jazz contains some of Matisse’s most well known images, including Icare (Icarus), Le clown, Le Loup and  Le Lagon.

Icarus

Icare (Icarus) Source:http://www.metmuseum.org

Le Cirque (The circus) Source www.henri-matisse.net

Personally I preferred the simple, effective line drawings included in two of the earlier books Poésies de Stéphane Mallarmé,  from 1932, and Pasiphae, Chant de Minos published in 1944.

Source www.henri-matisse.net

The drawings from Poésies, reproduced as etched prints, illustrate Mallarmé’s poem. They include portraits of Edgar Allen Poe and Mallarmé, and mythological images. In the book, Matisse attempted to balance the images and the text. Full-page illustrations were placed on the right hand page opposite the text, printed in 20-point Garamond italic typeface on the left hand pages.

, La chevelure [Tresses]

La chevelure [Tresses] Source:http://nga.gov.au

, Hérodiade

Hérodiade Source:http://nga.gov.au

, La coiffure d'Hérodiade [Hérodiade's hair]

La coiffure d’Hérodiade Source:http://nga.gov.au

I thought the portrait of Edgar Allen Poe, which accompanied the poem “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe.” was particularly effective. Matisse has used a few simple strokes yet has created an expressive image which captures the likeness of the American author and also seems to convey something of his character.

, Portrait E. Poe

Portrait E. Poe Source:http://nga.gov.au

The images in Pasiphae, Chant de Minos (1942), a retelling of the Greek legend of Pasiphaë and the Minoan bull, are linocuts and comprise simple white lines on an intense black background, which are characteristic of this printing technique.

Pages 26-27 di Pasiphae – Chant de Minos – Source www.henri-matisse.net

Images from the book can be viewed here.

The fourth book included in the exhibition was Poèmes de Charles d’Orléans which was published in 1950. In this case the images were printed by lithography, which means that they can incorporate several colours. However Matisse has only used a limited palette.

Source www.henri-matisse.net

This was my least favourite set of prints in the exhibition. The drawings mainly consisted of variants on the fleur de lis with a few sketches of people, which were much less powerful than those in Poésies and Pasiphae.  Images from the book can be viewed here.

J. D. Fergusson at the Hunterian

While we were in Glasgow last week we went to have a look at the exhibition Colour, Rhythm and Form: J. D. Fergusson and France showing at the Hunterian Art Gallery until 8 January 2012. It features a large number of paintings from the Fergusson Gallery in Perth together with works from the Hunterian’s own collection and three painting loaned by the Pompidou centre in Paris.

J. D. Fergusson, Self Portrait, 1907 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council

Fergusson (1874-1961) was one of the group of four Scottish artists collectively known as “the Scottish Colourists”, the others being Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935), George Leslie Hunter (1877-1931) and Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell (1883-1937).  They were all strongly influenced by French Avant-garde art from the early Twentieth Century, putting their own Scottish stamp on the styles. Fergusson, Peploe and Hunter exhibited together in Paris as Les Peintres de l’Écosse Moderne (Modern Scottish Painters) in 1924 and Les Peintres Ecossais (The Scottish Painters) in 1931.

As the title of the exhibition suggests, it focuses on Fergusson’s work but there are some examples of paintings by other Colourists. He lived in France between 1907 and 1914 and returned a number of times after the war.

I’d first come across his work in Manchester City Art Gallery who have one of his paintings in their collection.

J D Fergusson Le Quartier Paris 1906

As I noted in a previous post, I liked the simplicity of the composition and the style of painting – broad brush strokes and bright colours. This picture wasn’t included in the Hunterian exhibition, but there were plenty of other works to see that illustrated how Fergusson and the other “Colourists” were heavily influenced by the exciting developments in art taking place in Paris at the turn of the 20th Century. I’d recently seen the exhibition in Budapest of works by the “Hungarian Fauvists (A Nyolcak)” , another group of artists who were in Paris around the same time and were also heavily influenced by Cubist and Fauvist ideas, so it was particularly interesting to see how Fergusson’s work compared.

The works were displayed chronologically so it was easy to see how Fergusson’s style developed and changed over time as he absorbed influences from French artistic movements.

Early paintings show a strong influence by Whistler, a large collection of whose works are owned by the Hunterian (see here). They were very grey, dull and muddy, with little sign of the bright colours that were to typify his later works. His views and artistic approach changed when he became aware of Manet, Monet and the Impressionists during a number of visits to France, the first around 1897. He was later to explain

“Everyone in Scotland should refuse to have anything to do with black or dirty and dingy colours, and insist on clean colours in everything. I remember when I was young any colour was considered a sign of vulgarity. Greys and blacks were the only colours for people of taste and refinement. Good pictures had to be black, grey, brown or drab. Well! let’s forget it, and insist on things in Scotland being of colour that makes for and associates itself with light, hopefulness, health and happiness.”
– J. D. Fergusson, Modern Scottish Painting, William MacLellan, Glasgow 1943.

Having said that, a number of his later paintings show a Whistlerian influence, although with much brighter colours. For example, Le Manteau Chinois

Le Manteau Chinois 1909

Many of Fergusson’s paintings displayed in the exhibition are of women. The American artist Anne Estelle Rice, who he met in Paris, and his long term partner, who he met in France in 1913, the dancer Margaret Morris, both modelled for him and feature in many of his works. That’s Anne in the Chinese outfit above and in the next couple of pictures. Margaret features heavily in his work from 1913 onwards.

The painting from the Manchester City Art Gallery, which was painted in 1906, the year before he moved to France, shows a strong Impressionist influence. The earlier paintings from his time in Paris, such as Anne Estelle Rice in Paris, continue this trend.

J. D. Fergusson, Anne Estelle Rice in Paris, Closerie des Lilas, 1907 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council.

But he was soon trying out new styles as can be seen in Le Voile Persan , a very “flat” painting where the blocks of colour are outlined with heavy lines and less naturalistic colours are beginning to creep in. This was my favourite of all the pictures in the exhibition. It’s from the Hunterian Gallery’s own collection and I’d seen it during a previous visit in July. I was so taken with it I’d even bought a postcard!

J. D. Fergusson, Le Voile Persan, 1909 © The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery

The exhibition showed how Fergusson tried out different approaches, illustrated by three works painted during a stay in Royan in 1910, each of which is painted in a different style (one even looking as if it was painted by Van Gogh). A distinct Fauvist influence appears in his work at this time

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J. D. Fergusson, People and Sails at Royan, 1910

J. D. Fergusson, Les Eus, c 1910 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council

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J. D. Fergusson, At My Studio Window, 1910 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council

Fergusson was art editor of the Modernist magazine, Rhythm. The magazine title was suggested by Fergusson and the cover was based on one of the paintings from his Paris period,

Cover of Rhythm magazine (1911) by J D Fergusson

J. D. Fergusson, Rhythm, 1911

Another picture I liked was this portrait of Margaret Morris.

J. D. Fergusson Summer 1920

J. D. Fergusson, Christmas Time in the South of France, 1922 © The Fergusson Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council

One of his paintings, La Déssee de la Rivière was purchased by the French Government on the opening day of the 1931 exhibition held in Paris.  It’s now held by the Pompidou Centre who have lent it to the Hunterian, together with two other paintings,  La Forêt by Peploe and Lac Lomond by Hunter, which they purchased at the same time.

a painting of a reclining nude

J.D. Fergusson, La Déesse de la Rivière, c 1928 © Collection Centre Pompidou

There were a couple of sculptures displayed, including a cast of Estre, Hymn to the Sun – a bust of Margaret Morris. We’d seen another copy a little earlier in the day when we’d visited the Kelvingrove Museum, who have a small collection of works by the Colourists.

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J. D. Fergusson Estre, Hymn to the Sun c 1924

I thought that this was an excellent exhibition, providing a good opportunity to learn more about an important Scottish artist. Talking to one of the staff, attendance so far has been on the low side. She reckoned it was because Scots aren’t used to paying to see exhibitions (entry cost £5 each). I can understand that. Charging a fee inevitably restricts entry to the more affluent. However, the exhibition deserves to be a success. It’s on until 8 January and is definitely worth a visit by anyone interested in 20th Century British art.

This is not an exhibition – Magritte at the Tate Liverpool

We called in to the Tate Liverpool on Sunday, principally to pay a second visit to the Magritte exhibition that’s showing there until mid October. There’s a lot to see. The Tate have done a good job at pulling together a large number of his paintings, a significant proportion from private collections.

It was our second visit. We joined the Tate last year because we’ve found that the major exhibitions they organise need more than one visit to properly take in everything on display. There’s normally so many paintings that you become overwhelmed and it’s difficult to absorb everything you’re seeing.  This was certainly the case with the current exhibition. By taking out an individual membership with the “Liverpool extra card option” up to 4 people can visit all the exhibitions at the Albert Dock gallery without having to pay any extra. It allows us to revisit any exhibition we choose to, as many times as we want, meaning we can get a lot more out of them.

Like most of the exhibitions I’ve seen in recent years, the curators take a thematic rather than chronological approach to the works. I don’t think this always works. Sometimes an artist’s output is easier to understand when looked at chronologically. In this case I think the approach was successful, probably because Magritte developed his different themes over time, so there probably wouldn’t have been a great deal of difference if the pictures had been displayed chronologically.

Personally I’m not a great fan of Surrealist art.  The intention of Surrealist artists is to use “visual imagery from the subconscious mind to create art without the intention of logical comprehensibility”. I find it rather unsettling (which is actually what the artists are trying to achieve) and I can’t seem to engage with it.

I find Magritte more accessible than some other Surrealists, particularly Salvador Dali.  His paintings are less fantastic. Many of his subjects are more banal focusing on more everyday objects and situations rather than wandering into the wider realms of fantasy as Dali did. They feature pipes, bowler hats and apples rather than strange, unrealistic shapes and structures that appear in may of Dali’s works. But these ordinary objects are placed in unusual settings. In many ways it makes Magritte’s work more disconcerting.

To say the least, Magritte wasn’t a great draughtsman. Many of the earlier works are crude and not particularly well drawn. However I think his skills develop and his work improves over time.

Overall I wasn’t particularly keen on the works displayed in the first two rooms. I thought the paintings from his “Vache period” displayed in room 2 were awful. They may be of historical interest in terms of understanding his relationship with the French Surrealists, but they are not particularly good works of art. There were some smaller works I liked, some of which appeared to be collages. Unfortunately I didn’t note down their titles and haven’t been able to find them on the Tate website, although I think that one of them was called The Lost Jockey.

One of Magritte’s most famous works is “La trahison des images” – a picture of a pipe with the legend “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. The exhibition included a version of this work, but the legend was in English.

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I did like quite a few of the works displayed in room 5, particularly his cloud pictures and “The human condition” and some similar paintings.  It shows a canvas positioned in front of a window where the outside view appears on the canvas and overlaps the curtains as if they aren’t there. He uses a similar device, where the background is merged with the foreground, in a number of other works on display.

“The human condition” 1933

I’m not sure how the image in “the human condition” is meant to relate to the title of the picture. Perhaps it isn’t and is another Surrealist device providing a conflict between the words and the image to confuse the viewer.

I also liked a number of the works displayed in the last two rooms.  There were several versions of his series The Dominion of Light featuring a nigh time street scene under a bright blue afternoon sky. Another example of a disconcerting distortion of reality.

As with most exhibitions I’ve seen at the various Tate galleries, various contextual materials including photographs, home movies and examples of his commercial art were on display. I think these help the visitor to understand the artist and the environment which influenced his art and, to me, they were an important part of the exhibition which is meant to educate as well as “entertain”.

It was definitely worthwhile re-visiting the exhibition. I came away with a deeper understanding of Magritte’s work. However it was mainly an intellectual experience – very few of the works inspired me or engaged my emotions.

Jaume Plensa at the YSP

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This was our fifth trip over the Pennines to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in three years. It’s certainly become one of our favourite destinations for a cultural day trip. It’s well worth the journey as there is always plenty to see with frequently changing temporary exhibitions.

The current main exhibition showcases the work of the Catalan sculptor Jaume Plensa. (If you’re wondering how to pronounce his name, we had to ask, it’s Jaamer – like in pyjamas). He’s known over this side of the Pennines as the creator of the giant head overlooking the M62 near St Helens – “Dream”. Coincidentally, we’d seen one of his works a few weeks ago which was shown as part of the “Art on lake” exhibition in Budapest.

The other major exhibitions we’ve seen at the YSP mainly consisted of abstract works, most of Plensa’s sculptures are figurative – they feature the human body (or parts of it). Like Anthony Gormley, some of his pieces are based on his own body.  In particular, the collection of seated figures “hugging trees” – “The heart of trees” – displayed on the lawn in front of the Underground Gallery.

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Some of his works, like “Dream” in St Helens are large scale. and this is reflected in the works displayed at the YSP. You can’t miss the two large heads, “Nuria and Irma”, located on top of the Underground Gallery. They’re very effective. Their construction, from quite fine wire mesh, means that they’re very nebulous. They’re there, but they’re not there – if that makes any sense. And although each of the heads is looking in one direction, their “gaze” seem to follow you as you walk around the Bothy garden.

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There are giant heads inside the Underground Gallery too. “In the midst of dreams” consists of three large translucent heads, lit from the inside sat on large marble pebbles. They look like giants about to emerge from underground.

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A number of his sculptures were constructed of metal letters and symbols from  other alphabets and languages welded together to form a human body sat down with the arms around the legs in a distinctive pose. The sculpture we’d seen in Budapest was another of these. There were four pieces of this type displayed at the YSP. One of them, “The tree of knowledge”, standing at the top of the Bothy Garden, is over eight metres high and is constructed so you can walk inside so the sky and surroundings can be viewed through the structure.

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Words and language seems to be a major inspiration. They feature in a good number of the works. In some cases the sculptures are entirely made up of words and symbols. In other cases words and letters feature on the surface.

Unlike many other exhibitions where touching of sculptures displayed indoors isn’t allowed, and photographs forbidden, photography was permitted and you were actively encouraged to interact with some (but not all) of the works. As well as the “The tree of knowledge”, There are three works inside the Underground Gallery where interaction is possible. The long curtain of words – “Twenty-four Palms” consisting of lines from poems and texts that have inspired the artist – hanging in the concourse in the Underground Gallery, the two cabinets “Song of Songs I and II” which you can get inside, and the circle of large gongs (“Jerusalem”) installed in one of the galleries which visitors can hit (not too hard though!).

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I think my favourite work was the collection of “Alabaster heads” displayed in the Underground Gallery. They were young female heads, distorted so that they are elongated (like the girl’s head in “Dream”). They were lit by spotlights with no background lighting and parts of the stone seemed to be fluorescent. They made a strong impression on me. In some ways the lighting made them look “spooky”, enhanced by the sound drifting in from the gongs being struck in the adjacent room and the tinkling produced by the visitors interacting with “The tree of knowledge” .  But they also invoked a feeling of peace and tranquillity.

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The exhibition, which was due to finish in the autumn, has had its run extended into next year. I expect I’ll be going back. As well as the main exhibition there is a constantly changing programme of exhibitions in three other indoor galleries on the site and there are a large number of magnificent sculptures and structures displayed outdoors, including major works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.  With the opening of the nearby Hepworth Gallery in the town centre, Wakefield has become the “capital of sculpture”.

I’ve never seen a pregnant wall before

Image source:www.anishkapoor.com/86/When-I-am-Pregnant.html

On Saturday I finally got around to visiting the Anish Kapoor exhibition “Flashback”  showing at Manchester City Art Gallery, which finishes on Sunday 5th June. I’m glad I made the effort – it was excellent.

Although he’s a major artist, I don’t know too much about Kapoor, so this was another step on my journey of discovery of sculpture which started a couple of years ago with my first visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

One of the standout works for me was “When I am pregnant” (1997). It was, essentially, a bump built into the wall using a fibreglass form. The gallery wall had been adapted so that the bump merged seamlessly into it. The work must have to be re-created every time it is transferred from one exhibition to another. It can’t simply be picked up and moved. I guess this raises some interesting questions about whether its the same piece or a new one.

From the side, the bump was clearly visible, but when viewed head on it was difficult to make out due to the way it projected from the wall, its colour (identical to that of the wall) and the diffuse lighting employed in the gallery so that there were no distinct shadows. It was a disconcerting effect making it seem as if my eyes were out of focus. Form was only provided by the colour of the floor reflecting on the underside of the bump. Without this it would have been almost visible from the front. A clever use of optical effects.

Picasso: Peace and Freedom

We went to see the Picasso exhibition at the Tate Liverpool on Wednesday.  There were over 150 works on display on the top floor of the gallery, created after the second world war.  After watching the BBC programme about him recently, it was  agood opportunity to see some of his work “in the flesh”.

The exhibition attempts to interpret these works in the context of Picasso’s political activism. He joined the Communist Party in October 1944 Picasso  and remained a member until his death in 1973. He’s been criticised for his involvement, particularly as he was an uncritical of the Soviet regime despite the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. But politics isn’t simple and Picasso, like many workers and intellectuals, saw the Communist Party as the only bastion against fascism and reaction.

Quite a few of the works displayed are clearly political. This includes some of his paintings from just after the war, in particular “the Charnel House“, “Monument to Spaniards who died for France” and “the Cockerel of the Liberation”. There is also a room devoted to politically influenced works including prints and drawings that Picasso produced for L’Humanitie (the French Communist Party newspaper) and other leftist publications.

There were quite a few paintings, drawings and prints featuring his well known Dove of Peace, a symbol that is still widely used today. Although the dove has been used to represent peace since biblical times it was popularised by Picasso who produced a design of a dove for a poster to advertise the International peace congress in Paris, 1949. The image was, apparently, chosen by the Surrealist poet (and Communist) Louis Aragon who picked out a lithograph of a fan-tailed pigeon while he was visiting Picasso’s studio in 1949. So the image wasn’t actually designed specifically to use as a peace symbol.  However, the image was clearly popular and he produced variations of the image for subsequent Peace Conferences held in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Vienna, Rome and Moscow. He also used the image in other contexts too, often simplified as a line drawing, and there are a large number of examples on display in the exhibition. He even named one of his daughters after it –  “Paloma” is the Spanish word for “dove”.

Although there were a lot of examples of overtly political art and a number of paintings with clear political themes, I was not convinced by the interpretations of many of the works on display as political, particularly those in the rooms entitled “Still Lives” and “Mothers and Musketeers” . I just couldn’t see the political connection in many of them and I thought that the curator’s interpretations were stretching the point.   Picasso’s art was clearly influenced by politics and contemporary events, but I don’t think it is correct to say that all his works reflected this. It’s too simplistic an interpretation.

Ironically much of the work he produced for the Communist Party didn’t go down well with the party hierarchy. “Decadant” artist like Picasso were actually persecuted in Russia (and no doubt the same fate would have befallen him if he had lived there).  His work certainly couldn’t be categorised as “Socialist Realist”. Nevertheless, having a high profile celebrity like Picasso in the fold was no doubt seen as valuable publicity.

Picasso was tremendously talented and could work in any style he chose. I particularly like the simpler things that he produced like the ink drawings and lithographs. He seemed to be able to produce images with a few strokes of his pen or brush. One notable example in the exhibition was a mural sketched on a wall in November 1950 while visiting the home of his friend, the scientist Professor John Desmond Bernal. The mural, known as “Bernal’s Picasso” is a simple sketch depicting the head of a man and woman with laurel wreaths and wings. The section  of the wall with the mural was saved when the house was demolished and its now owned by the Wellcome Trust, and is on loan for the exhibition (as are many of the works on display).

The exhibition was a great opportunity to see a large collection of Picasso’s later work assembled from all over the world.  He was a tremendously prolific artist and there are large concentrations in major cities such as Paris (I’ve visited the Musee Picasso a couple of times) and in Spain, but we don’t get too may opportunities to see much of his work in the North West of England. His later work is generally less well known than that produced before the ware, but it was well worth seeing. In fact, there was really too much to see during one visit and, despite the relatively hefty entrance fee, another visit before he exhibition ends will be more than worthwhile.

A World Observed

“A World Observed 1940 – 2010: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm” is a major exhibition running at the Manchester City Art Gallery until 30 August.

Dorothy Bohm was born in East Prussia who came to Britain as a refugee fleeing the Nazis at the beginning of the Second World War. She studied photography in at Manchester College of Technology and after graduating started work in the city as a portrait photographer.

This exhibition has a large number of photographs spanning her long career. The early photographs are portraits from her time as a commercial photographer, but she soon  branched out into “street” photography devoting her time exclusively to this in the 1950′s and the majority of the photographs featured in the exhibition are of this genre. She has travelled extensively and there are photographs on display taken from all over the world.

Quite a few of the photographs taken when she initially strayed out of the studio were effectively portraits of people. She clearly posed her subjects as she would in the studio. Some examples can be seen on the City Gallery website including these two here and here. Others feature people in the street but still probably posed. An example shown on the City Gallery website here.

Her early work was in black and white but in the 1980′s she started working exclusively in colour.

“Street” photography is a good description of her later work. Although there are some landscape photographs many of her pictures feature ordinary people caught in their everyday setting in the streets where they live their lives. In some of her later photographs people are present but are not the main feature of the composition. They are like other objects, adding to the overall picture without dominating it. This is the case in a photograph taken in Lisbon which, according to an article in the Guardian, she considers to be her best shot

There are also some more abstract pictures that don’t feature people, including a series of photographs of torn posters, such as this one, and some atmospheric landscapes.

The exhibition is very comprehensive and includes some excellent pictures, bit there were too many to look at them all as thoroughly as I’d have liked. As it’s on show until August another visit or two will be worthwhile. As public art galleries in Britain are free to enter its easy to do that (providing I can find the time!)

People’s History Museum, Manchester

We went into Manchester on Friday and decided to visit the People’s History Museum which had reopened earlier this year after a lengthy closure during the building of a new extension to the old Pump House Building (which used to provide hydraulic power to the city of Manchester from 1909 to 1972). Their collection was originally owned by the National Labour Museum which was formerly located in the building in Princess Street where the fist Trades Union Congress was held. The name change says something, I think.

The permanent collection, which is located on two floors in the new extension, traces the history of “popular” struggle from the 1700′s up to the present day. It covers Peterloo, Chartism, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the rise of the Labour Movement, the origins of the Labour Party, the struggles for Women’s rights and various popular protests that took place in the 20th Century. Inevitably with such a broad canvas the survey is superficial and nothing is covered in-depth. Nevertheless it provides a good overview and introduction for schoolkids and anyone else who wants an introduction to “popular” history. I would imagine most people know very little about the struggle working people have had to undergo to obtain basic democratic rights.

The right to organise and to strike, and the vote, have all had to be won by the struggle of ordinary working people. The exhibition provides a reminder that isn’t covered well in school history lessons and conventional histories. What it doesn’t emphasise is how the struggle has usually been derailed by the leadership. One display does hint at this though – it showed how the early leaders of the Labour Movement used to wear top hats as a mark of their “respectability”.

The best part of the exhibition for me was the display of banners and some of the other artefacts of the labour movement. The museum has a large collection of banners and does work to conserve them.