A few works at Tate Modern

After looking round the Red Star Over Russia exhibition, I spent about an hour having a wander round some of the free galleries at Tate Modern.  I’ve been to the Gallery several times recently, but it’s so big with a massive collection (of which only a fraction is on display at any one time) that I always seem to spot something I hadn’t seen before.

This poster from a collection on display from the May 68 events in Paris (50th anniversary coming up soon)  by the Atelier Populaire rather resonated with the exhibition I’d just seen

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I rather liked this 3 dimensional work by Victor Passmore

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Abstract in White, Green, Black, Blue, Red, Grey and Pink (1963)

A pleasing discovery was a number of photographs by the German photographer Werner Mantz.

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Werner Mantz began his career as a portrait and advertising photographer, later becoming known for his architectural photographs of the modernist housing projects in Cologne during the 1920s. His work is linked with the “New Objectivity” Movement in German photography before the Second World War which was concerned with using the clarity and precision of the camera to depict the everyday world in structured and organised compositions.

The photographs again linked with the Red Star Over Russia exhibition as they were similar in many ways with the photographs by Rodchenko.

I particularly liked this image dominated by the shadow of the lamppost

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Detail of Kalkerfield settlement, Cologne 1928

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Red Star Over Russia

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November 7  2017 marked the centenary of Russia’s October Revolution when the workers and peasants overthrew the oppressive Tsarist regime. The apparent contradiction arising as Russia at that time still used the Julian Calendar which was several days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West so as far as the Russians were concerned the date was 25 October.  This exhibition at Tate Modern featuring posters, prints, photographs and other images collected by the photographer and graphic designer David King, who died only recently in 2016, is meant to mark the historic event.

The Revolution started with great hope and optimism about creating a new kind of Society, unleashing enormous creativity by artists who supported its aims. Sadly in the face of counter revolutionary forces supported by the west the early idealism turned sour leading to the vicious dictatorship of Josef Stalin.

David King collected over 250,000 books, journals, posters, documents and newspapers dating from the Russian Revolution to the Khrushchev era which were acquired by the Tate just before his death. A cross section of the collection is included in this exhibition, which uses them to give visitors a glimpse of life in the Soviet Union during this period. As the Guardian’s review puts it, it’s

a condensed vision of five decades of Soviet hopes ending in devastation and despair.

 

I’m not going to attempt a full survey or critique of the exhibition but, as photography was allowed, here’s some of my favourites from the items on display.

From the early optimisitic days of the Revolution, the first room included this banner

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and a wall covered with prints and posters

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which included El Lissitzky‘s well known Supremacist poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)

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The red triangle driving into a white disc against a black ground, urging the revolutionary Bolsheviks to defeat the reactionary White Russians. 

Underneath, this imaginative work – a photomontage making up a hammer and sickle by Yakov Guminer

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The next room was my favourite with the photographs and graphic work by Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky both of who also produced works in collaboration with their wives, Varvara Stepanova and Sophie Küppers respectively.

There were a number of extraordinarily brilliant ground breaking photographs by Rodchenko

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and a series of abstract graphic works by El Lissitzky

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There were also examples of the journal, USSR in Construction, to which both couples contributed photomontage and other design elements.

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In the next room the walls were lined with a series of photographs providing snapshots of the history of Russia from 1905 until WWII.

Unfortunately the period of experimentation and radical art didn’t last long. 1934 saw the dawn of “Socialist Realism”, the Stalinist State dictating that artists should use realist styles to create highly optimistic depictions of Soviet life. There was a typical example of this in the next room with a series of large paintings by Alexander Deineka  produced for the 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris, portraying   which “fused reality with aspiration”.

The next room brought us back down to Earth. Here there were “before and after” photographs showing us how leaders and other individuals who fell out of favour with the Stalinist regime were “erased from history”. And there was a particularly moving display of photos of some of the many hundreds of thousands of people, many of them true Revolutionaries, who were murdered by the Stalinist State.

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The final room featured posters and photographs from the period following the German invasion in 1941when artists were mobilised to create propaganda, in some cases reworking images from the early revolutionary period.

I enjoyed looking around the exhibition and was pleased that I’d had the opportunity to catch it before it closed. And I still had an hour or so to spare to look round some of the free displays before I had to leave to catch my train.

 

Modigliani at Tate Modern

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The first Friday in January and our first full day in London in 2018. I was up fairly early as I needed to make a work related call but after that we left the Premier Inn, leaving our bags to pick up later, and took the Tube over to London Bridge. We were heading for Tate Modern as we wanted to visit the Modigliani exhibition that had opened at the end of November. A Sephardic Jew originally from Livorno in Italy, Modigliani moved to Paris in 1906. He had a hedonistic lifestyle drinking to excess, indulging in other chemical highs, and died young from the complications of alcoholism at the age of 35. This exhibition is a comprehensive survey of his work created during his all too brief time in the French Capital.

 

After visiting the Cezanne exhibition at the NPG the previous evening, this was our second exhibition of portraits in 24 hours and a chance to “compare and contrast”, especially as Modigliani was influenced by Cezanne’s work. I think that of the two exhibitions I enjoyed the Modigliani more. The paintings were easier to like – Cézanne’s were more complex and darker in some respects. And Modigliani has been a favourite for some time.

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Self portrait (1919)

Unlike Cezanne, who also well known for his landscapes and still lives, Modigliani was something of a “one trick” artist , a painter of portraits. There is one small landscape included in the Tate’s show, but it’s best forgotten. But I love his distinctive portraits with their stylised long necks, oval faces and almond eyes, influenced by African and Egyptian art. Looking up close at so many of his paintings it was possible to see that he used paint sparingly, applied thinly compared to Cezanne. Possibly a stylistic choice but also, no doubt, influenced by financial considerations.

Portrait of a Girl c.1917 by Amedeo Modigliani 1884-1920

Portrait of a Girl c.1917 Amedeo Modigliani 1884-1920 Bequeathed by C. Frank Stoop 1933 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N04723

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He did try his hand as a sculptor, though, and there’s a room full of his sculptures early in the exhibition. As with his paintings, they’re stylised heads

Head c.1911-2 by Amedeo Modigliani 1884-1920

As Modigliani was almost a caricature of an impoverished, bohemian artist, he surreptitiously “procured” his stone from building sites around Montparnasse and this was evident in some of the pieces on display where decorative architectural features were visible.

Many of the portraits were of his friends and patrons, including

 

 

 

Room 8 was largely devoted to female nudes

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Nu couché, (1917-18)

The exhibition website tells us that

At the time, these modern nudes proved shocking. In 1917, when some of the paintings were included in Modigliani’s only lifetime solo exhibition, a police commissioner asked for their removal on the grounds of indecency. He found their pubic hair offensive. Traditionally, in fine art, nudes were hair-free.

Personally, I found these some of the less interesting paintings in the exhibition. In a few cases paintings of the model clothed were displayed next to the nude painting. I found these much more interesting and attractive.

The exhibition blurb also tells us that

If Modigliani made these paintings for male buyers, their sensuality suggests changes in the lives of young women, who were increasingly independent in the 1910s. The models dominate the compositions, often making eye contact with the viewer, their made-up faces hinting at the growing influence of female film stars.

I’m not convinced by this analysis. I’m pretty certain that these paintings were created for the titillation of their wealthy male buyers and I doubt Modigliani’s motivation was to make a feminist statement.

Following on from the nudes there were portraits painted during a stay in the South of France from the end of 1918, returning to Paris the following year.  The exhibition guide tells us

Modigliani made some of his strongest works in Nice. ………… In the absence of professional models, he painted local children and his friends, capturing them in warm Mediterranean colours.

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The Little Peasant c.1918 © Tate

The next section of the exhibition was something different – a virtual reality experience. After queuing for a short while we entered a room where we sat down and were given a VR headset and were able to view the interior of Modigliani’s studio in Montparnasse.

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Through study of documentary material and of Modigliani’s works themselves, the environment in which the artist made his last works is reimagined. In this room you can immerse yourself in a virtual reality recreation of Modigliani’s final studio, which uses the actual studio space as a template.

The next room featured portraits of Modigliani’s “intimate circle” – his closest friends, including his art dealer, Léopold Zborowski and his partner Anna Sierzpowski (known as Hanka Zborowska).

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The exhibitions ends with a row of portraits of his last lover, a young aspiring artist, Jeanne Hebuterne who he met in the spring of 1917 when she was 19. Despite the objections of her parents they set up home together and a daughter was born in November 1918 while they were briefly living in Nice in the South of France. Tragically, the day after he died, despite being nine months pregnant with her second child, she threw herself out of the fifth-floor apartment window the day after Modigliani’s death, killing herself and her unborn child.

Modigliani’s portraits of Jeanne are a marked contrast to Cezzane’s painting of his wife. Unlike poor Mrs Cezanne, Jeanne comes across as a strong, beautiful young woman.

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All in all a very enjoyable exhibition. Together with the Cezanne exhibition we’d seen the previous evening it made it worthwhile staying down in London for a night.

 

Clocking in

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A little before we clocked in and joined the production line in Tate Exchange we’d seen a series of 8,627 photographs and a film showing someone clocking in on the hour, every hour,  24 hours a day for a full 12 months during 1980-1981. One Year Perormance was undertaken by Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh in his studio in New York.

Marking the occasion by taking a self-portrait on a single frame of 16mm film, the resulting reel documents a year in his life at approximately one second per day – a pace that is polar opposite of the enduring length of the original performance

At the beginning of the project he shaved off his hair and we can see it gradually grow back in the series of photographs and the film.

It seemed such an odd thing to do. It meant that he was unable to sleep properly for a full year. He missed 133 clock-ins, and the reasons are documented on a note which is displayed amongst the contextual materials included in the exhibition along with letters, statements, uniforms, photographs, the punch clock itself and a time card. The main reason given was, not surprisingly,  sleeping through.

According to an interview in the Guardian the artist, the work

recalls the labours of Sisyphus, who, in Greek mythology, was forced to roll a rock repeatedly up a mountain, only to watch it fall down again

while it may seem to convey a message about the tedium and conformity of industrial labour, he tells Guardian Australia he is “not a political artist, although people are at liberty to interpret my work from a political standpoint … I’m interested in the universal circumstances of human life”.

Although clearly a crazy thing to do, there was something rather fascinating about the project and, personally, I can certainly see a political message about the alienation of work and how people are enslaved by work that is certainly relevant in this day of zero hour contracts and so-called self employed status workers employed by the likes of Uber and courier services.

Production at Tate Modern

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After wandering around Borough Market and visiting Southwark Cathedral, we walked the short distance along the South Bank to Tate Modern where we spent the afternoon. The Bankside gallery is huge, even more so since the addition of the massive extension, that it would take more than a day to see everything. During this visit we concentrated on the extension (now named after a rich foreign mogul who contributed to Trump’s election, so no name check for him, as far as I’m concerned it’s the extension or “Switch House”) which occupied the rest of the afternoon and we still didn’t have time to see everything in it.

The exhibition space on Level 5 of the extension is devoted to the Tate Exchange which is described as

A space for everyone to collaborate, test ideas and discover new perspectives on life, through art

Currently the space has been transformed into a pottery production line by the artist Clare Twomey an artist who

works with clay in large-scale installations, Sculpture and site-specific works

and whose

installations have the social and historical context in which the installation is created as their point of departure

Entering the gallery we had to pick up a clock card and “clock in” and were given an apron to wear .

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We were then invited to join one of the production lines where gallery staff were instructing visitors on how to weigh out materials, cast vessels from a slurry of clay (known as “slip”) or bone china flowers.

We joined the slip casting production line. We were shown how to assemble a mould, pour in the slip. The filled moulds are left a short while for clay to deposit on the sides, forming the shape of the pot. We were given one that was ready for the next stage, pouring off the excess slip, cutting off the excess clay and then opening the mould to extract the cast object.

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The next stage would be firing the pot but we were told to take the pot we’d extracted to the end of the line and exchange it for another that had already been fired, which we were then free to take home with us after clocking out and having a photograph taken of the selected objects and clock cards.

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The final stage in real pottery production would be to apply a glaze and give it a second firing. But the pots available were all unfired “biscuit”. I guess the objects made will be fired and added to the exchange for another visitor to collect.

I’ve never been in a real pottery production factory although because of my job I know about the production process and the health hazards associated with it. The main concern being exposure to silica dust from the clay, talc dust used as a parting material to stop the clay sticking to the moulds, and toxic materials, such as lead, in the glazes. So it was interesting, as well as fun, to participate in the installation.

The pottery production was the first part of the installation, lasting a week. During the second week, 5 to 8 October,

The production line stops, the workers have left and you will enter a factory soundscape. The now redundant factory becomes a space for questions. Talks from industry specialists, researchers and makers will explore how communities are built by collective labour, look at where the industrial processes of our past are informing our future and consider what we will need from factories in years to come.

Cards placed throughout the factory floor invite you to think about raw materials, how knowledge is acquired and shared, where transformation takes place and the different systems of value we apply to material culture and human relationships. Leave your thoughts and share where production exists for you in exchange for an object made in the factory.

It would have been interesting to return and participate in the second phase. Like most tradition al industry in the UK, the pottery industry which used to dominate the Staffordshire Potteries around Stoke on Trent, has declined as production and jobs have been transferred to countries where labour is cheap and conditions are often significantly worse for the workers. So the exhibition mirrors what has happened to the pottery industry in the UK. Given my professional interest, and political philosophy, I’d have plenty I could contribute to this discussion.

Everything we, and other visitors, were doing during our participation, seemed to be logged. There was a phone app we could download and log in and out of the different stages of the process. It was also possible to see the towns where the objects produced had ended up (we had to include this on our clock cards). So no doubt there is more to this project then meets the eye.

Space Tapestry at Tate Liverpool

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The ground floor gallery at Tate Liverpool is currently showing Space Tapestry: Faraway Missions, a large-scale wall hanging made by the artist Aleksandra Mir with 25 collaborators, aged 18–24, using Sharpie marker pens..

The exhibition web site tells us that the work was

Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry and the anonymous artists who depicted Halley’s Comet in 1066

The whole work is 200 metres long and three metres high, 3000 hours over 3 years to complete. Only part of it is on show in Liverpool, the rest is being displayed at Modern Art Oxford

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The main work is accompanied by 39 smaller drawings depicting a series of probes that have been sent into outer space since the 1950s

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Portraying a Nation at Tate Liverpool – Part 2 – Otto Dix: The Evil Eye

The second part of the current exhibition at Tate Liverpool features paintings and works on paper by Otto Dix who is best known for

his unforgiving depiction of Weimar Society and the Great War from whence it was forged. Along with George Grosz and Max Beckmann, he is  considered one of the most important artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit. (www.ottodix.org)

The exhibition website also tells us

Dix was a key supporter of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement, a name coined after an exhibition held in Mannheim, Germany in 1925. Described by art historian G.F. Hartlaub, as ‘new realism bearing a socialist flavour’, the movement sought to depict the social and political realities of the Weimar Republic.

The exhibition includes a large number of his paintings and an important series of prints together with some contextual materials. Consequently it’s a good survey of his work.

August Sander, The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha, 1925/26

The Painter Otto Dix and his Wife Martha (1925-6) by August Sander

The first section of the exhibition concentrates on his paintings and watercolours depicting the “underside” or the fringes of society. They’re quite brutal caricatures that don’t pull any punches. But they show quite a different side of Weimar Germany than August Sander’s photographs of more ordinary “mainstream” people taken during the same period. As the Observer’s reviewer puts it

Dix’s Weimar is a nightmare of raddled prostitutes, drunk customers and violent sailors, of rape, murder and maggot-ridden skulls.

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Reclining Woman on a Leopard Skin (1927)

The Observer again

Dix’s paintings are fiercely indigestible; you are meant to look at the livid cheeks and poisonous impasto and recoil. He believed in the disruptive power of ugliness.

Dix had volunteered at the outbreak of the First World War and served as an artilleryman and machine gunner on the Western Front, where he took part in the Battle of the Somme. In 1918, weary of trench fighting he volunteered as an aerial observer and trained as an aeroplane pilot. He was traumatised by the war and suffered recurring nightmares. His world view was coloured by these experiences which are depicted in a series of 50 etchings, many of which which don’t make comfortable viewing. I felt they were the most affecting part of the exhibition.

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Assault Troops Advance under Gas (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) (1924)

After viewing the horrors of war so graphically portrayed in the etchings, the next section of the exhibition brought us back down to earth with a series of more sober (a relative term when considering Dix’s work) portraits.

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Self-Portrait with Easel (1926)

This was a major source of his income during the 1920’s. His style was a mixture of realism and caricature, both old fashioned and avant-garde, as we can see in this example

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Portrait of the Jeweller Karl Krall (1923)

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Portrait of the Photographer Hugo Erfurth with Dog (1926)

He painted them using the techniques used by the Renaissance “old masters”. This involved using a layering effect, with egg tempera  finished with oils. There was a video on display of an old film which showed him “in action”.

The final section of the exhibition showed a different aspect of the artist with paintings of his family and a series of 14 watercolours painted in 1925 for a picture book for his five-year-old stepdaughter, Hana Koch. The subjects of these watercolours include mythical and biblical figures and stories such as St George fighting the dragon, St Christopher, Jonah and the whale, and David and Goliath.