Archive

Monthly Archives: May 2013

Hee-oh’ks-te-kin, Rabbit’s Skin Leggings, a Brave Nez Percé, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Hee-oh’ks-te-kin, Rabbit’s Skin Leggings, a Brave Nez Percé,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

It’s a fairly rare occurrence when I find myself in London with nothing specific to do. Living in Kent but working in London I’m almost always en route to something pre-planned. But when such a lovely occasion does arise I am almost overwhelmed by the possibilities and can feel myself potentially heading into headless chicken mode, unable to make a sound decision due to an over-abundance of choices. On this last particular rainy Tuesday in London I had only an hour to spare and an empty pocket. Standing in St Martin’s Lane I made the decision to develop my underused sketchbook within the confines of the National Portrait Gallery, not a very regular haunt of mine and so a welcome change. Climbing the marble staircase I was pleasantly surprised to spot that the current exhibition is in fact free and, as it turns out, more than worth a visit.

George Catlin’s portraits of Native American Indians are both strikingly powerful and sinisterly suspicious. I was shocked initially by the wall text which stated that Catlin’s images are almost unique, a rare insight into the life inside the tribe and as such, largely what our representations of Native American Indians are still based on today. It could well be the cynic in me, but at a time when Native American Indians were considered savages and being driven from their homes and their settlements, how likely is it really that a white American contemporary could paint them and their lifestyles entirely unbiased by his own experience?

I’m not the only one to have thought this of course, even those at the time accused Catlin of exaggerating for effect which, if true, casts doubt on the accuracy of his portrayals. Although there is no reason to suggest that Catlin had entirely, lets say, unsavoury motives, it’s almost certain he was not acting purely in the interests of the Indians. As the exhibition points out, Catlin was, as well as being an ambitious painter, of an entrepreneurial nature. Working hard to get himself established he set up his own shows, made continuous and increasingly desperate efforts to sell his Native American Indian collection and highlighted the sensational aspects of his experiences to acquire an audience. He did, in effect, exploit the culture he claimed he was trying to protect. Certain members of the tribes were understandably wary of trusting and becoming involved with a white outsider but, after seeing others pose for portraits, became intrigued and were won over. Catlin’s practice, well, portraiture in general I suppose, does appeal to some of the less impressive aspects of human nature; vanity, power, self-importance. He essentially infiltrated them, infecting both them and their culture with practices embodying western concepts and hierarchies. He wasn’t the only one. Not the first and certainly not the last.

It’s possible, or even likely that Catlin proceeded with generally good intentions but, like many philanthropic objectives, ended up being patronising and ultimately damaging. His work Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going To and Returning From Washington is clearly a morality tale, intentional propaganda for the good of the tribesmen. A tribe member posing in traditional dress is shown on one half of the canvas alongside a portrayal of the same man on his return from treaty talks in Washington; suited, swaggering and complete with cane and pipe. Catlin, in his eagerness to captivate his audience at home and to commercialise the image of the Native American Indian people, succeeded in using them for his own advancement.

The paintings themselves are spellbinding. Entirely accurate or not, an overwhelming sense of personality radiates from the works, each, despite western poses and potentially characterised representation, conveying the depth inherent in a people whose history outranks the immigrant Americans by thousands of years. The voyeuristic, sensationalist aspect of their attraction is still relevant, the brilliance and beauty of their dress still captivating. Whether or not we believe he was truly a force for the good of the tribesmen themselves, we can’t deny that his paintings brim over with an intensity of expression and now, as then, do not fail to mesmerize their audience.

La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior Pawnee, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior Pawnee,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe Blackfoot/Kainai, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe Blackfoot/Kainai,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Medicine Man, Performing his Mysteries over a Dying Man Blackfoot/Siksika, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Medicine Man, Performing his Mysteries over a Dying Man Blackfoot/Siksika,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Eeh-nís-kim, Crystal Stone, Wife of the Chief Blackfoot/Kainai, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Eeh-nís-kim, Crystal Stone, Wife of the Chief Blackfoot/Kainai,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Shón-ka, The Dog, Chief of the Bad Arrow Points Band Western Sioux/Lakota, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Shón-ka, The Dog, Chief of the Bad Arrow Points Band Western Sioux/Lakota,
George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

George Catlin – American Indian Portraits is showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd June and is free entry.

http://americanart.si.edu/

It’s a tragedy that a huge number of people in this country do not own a garden. Many have grown up without one and having moved into their own homes still don’t, subsequently never enjoying the wonders it can bring. Of course there are shared spaces, public parks, allotments etc. But somehow it’s not quite the same. Parks are so heavily policed by military-style groundskeepers nowadays that I suspect you might be placed under citizens arrest for merely picking a rogue flower. Shared spaces likewise, although probably not quite so extremist as organisations such as the City of London Corporation who mange Hampstead Heath and other so called ‘public’ spaces, in which you are allowed to access it as a member of the public, but use it only according to the rules of the draconian committee.

A few years ago, on my first foray from family home into my own rented flat and desperate for independence and un-impinged parties, I brushed off the suggestion of needing a place with a garden as rubbish. An unnecessarily expensive luxury addition, I thought. Departing the flat 6 months later and returning to the parents’ after a fairly disastrous first try, I made a big, bright mental post-it note to self for future reference; Garden = essential. For not only is a garden somewhere to hang your washing (which is rather important, I discovered!), it’s also an outside place of refuge. A place to be, on your own, where no-one else is. Where you can sit in your PJs and stare at the stars with a glass of wine without the neighbours flinging you a fixed smile as they pass you on the front step of the flat. It’s an extra room, a social space to have guests, or not.

But more importantly than all of this, it’s your very own zoo. Full of life. Animal life, insect life, plant life, amphibian life perhaps. In your hands. The potential for this is astounding once you begin to really think about it. Being young you never consider you’ll ever be interested in gardening. It’s something your parents do on a Sunday because they’re bored, while you’re in bed with a hangover because your life is all about partying. But suddenly this wild little patch of land is yours to do with as you wish. You may have realised by now that I have recently acquired said land and am beginning to open my mind to what I can do with it and what I will find in it. My very own microcosmic ecosystem.

Taking my camera I decided to document both the micro and not so micro, the detail and the overall, the pretty and the ugly; partly to see what’s there but also to remember it how it was when I started, before I or anyone else had put their stamp on it. Untended (bar a quick shave of the grass every so often) for over a decade, it is wild and although part of me would love to keep it that way, the other, houseproud part of me can’t wait to get stuck in. Love your gardens. They are a haven.

DSC_0490 DSC_0519 DSC_0525 DSC_0488 DSC_0551_b&w DSC_0495

DSC_0548DSC_0522

DSC_0544 DSC_0537_b&w

Seascape c.1965 Oil and Magna on canvas Private collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012

Seascape c.1965 Oil and Magna on canvas
Private collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Contradiction abounds in the art world. I’ve ranted about it before so I’ll try not to bore you again, but suffice it to say that as one person’s rubbish is another person’s gold, and one purporter of criminal damage is another local council’s Banksy, the art world is no different from the rest of the world in its embrace of hypocrisy. So why was I surprised to find the same bizarre situation arising again at the Tate Modern with Lichtenstein? I suppose surprised is the wrong word, bemused may be more appropriate. Bemused by the revering of Lichtenstein and his comic strip reproductions not because I consider them unworthy (though who am I to say), but because the art world deems then more so than their original incarnations.

I have always liked Lichtenstein, seeing his images in books was always a bright, colorful, smile-inducing experience. I copied one of his pieces for my GCSE art coursework. Actually, he was a favourite for that role, as I remember many of my classmates did too (spot the irony). His pieces were comparably easy to replicate accurately, next to say, a Turner and were bold and fun to create, with thick black outline and flat colour fill. Wandering around the huge Tate retrospective I initially enjoyed the sense of immersion in American pop culture, but it wasn’t just the repetitive aesthetics that began to make me restless as I swept past great sections, eager for a shift in momentum. The show was causing an uneasiness in me, a niggling feeling that once again the system has committed an injustice. The art system can’t do fair. Just like any other system, there are winners and losers, much of it down to luck and a lot of it down to connections. If everyone were a winner then everyone would be equal and, gasp!, what would the world possibly be like without inequality!?

Whaam! 1963 Tate © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Whaam! 1963 Tate
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Lichtenstein is revered in his status as iconic pop artist, yet made his name essentially transposing others’ designs. OK, he wasn’t a ‘straight copyist’, as Tate dutifully reminds us, but he did take quite a lot more than influence for his pieces, often only marginally altering their composition or form. So why are the original artists, those cartoon designers and others since, awarded no critical kudos for their works? Why are their designs only lauded in the hands of someone else? Someone who, granted, put them on a canvas via the medium of paint. Is that the nub of it? Gallery-friendly? Given the status of paint and a large canvas it becomes high art rather than lowly design. I would be utterly, wearisomely un-shocked were that the sole truth of it, but it is also largely down to fashion, Banksy being the current prime example of this. The first graffiti artist to be accepted by the art world, his pieces selling for millions while other, sometimes much better, street art is still being painted over by humourless local councils. Theoretically laughable, but it is the case. Like his contemporary, Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein was seen to be inviting a dialogue about the relationship between fine art and commercialism. Pieces such as Portable Radio, creating confusion between painting and object, are striking and reminiscent in general of the pop art movement. However while Warhol’s work was often explicitly tongue in cheek and provocative, baiting the crowds with its charismatic allure, Lichtenstein’s pieces seem dry in comparison, a less stimulating and shallower format through which to start debate.

Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… 1964 Collection Simonyi © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… 1964 Collection Simonyi © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Portable Radio, 1962. Image from tsun-zaku.tumblr.com

Portable Radio, 1962. Image from tsun-zaku.tumblr.com

His explorations into medium and style proved more attractive to my own sensibilities. Earlier ‘Brushstrokes’ pieces straddle the boundaries of graphics and abstraction, merging into a unique form which doesn’t quite fit into our standard categories. His landscapes series particularly, is intriguing, utilising his self-defined ‘depiction of the grand gesture’ style to produce works such as Seascape, 1965, which challenge the traditional importance of fluidity and blend of colouration in the portrayal of a landscape scene. Other experiments left me lukewarm. His re-imagining of well-known paintings felt decidedly GCSE and dealt me a little internal cringe, his mirror paintings and geometric pieces didn’t inspire and the late nudes, well, no. At the end of the show, however, my interest was re-ignited firstly by some more abstract pieces and then by a set of peaceful Chinese landscapes. In a bizarre result which defied my expectation, Lichtenstein’s concentrated abstraction somehow achieves a delicate balance when paired with eastern stylistic forms. Rather beautiful in fact and a satisfyingly poignant way to finish a show which minutes earlier I was hoping for the end of.

Sunrise 1965 Private collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Sunrise 1965 Private collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Brushstroke with Spatter 1966 The Art Institute of Chicago, Barbara Neff Smith and Solomon Byron Smith Purchase Fund © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Brushstroke with Spatter 1966 The Art Institute of Chicago, Barbara Neff Smith and Solomon Byron Smith Purchase Fund © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Blue Nude 1995 Private Collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Blue Nude 1995 Private Collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Landscape with Philosopher 1996 Oil and Magna on canvas Private collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

Landscape with Philosopher 1996 Oil and Magna on canvas Private collection © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2012. Image from Tate.

DSC_0237

Having grown up nearby, I am aware that Canterbury struggles to retain the appearance of affluence which it still manages to convey to non-locals. In contrast with places like Windsor, which drip with money as well as history lessons, Canterbury is most definitely not the top dollar dog, despite its roaring tourist trade. I visited recently on a warm but spring day, the high street bustling, the crowd moving almost as one entity as it filed towards the centre of town. Packed with tourists. Corporate brands at every step. But branch a few streets out of the centre and things seem remarkably less plush. I imagine the tourist trade keeps the place above water; stopping Tesco from barging in and trying to ‘ regenerate’ the city by turning the Cathedral into a multi level superstore. It reminds me a bit of Chatham, too separated from London to develop the eclectic trendiness arising from an influx of young professionals, but still with enough cultural history to distinguish it from the Dartfords of the world (though being so close to Canterbury, and on the pilgrim trail, Dartford does indeed have its own history to tell).

I don’t mean to imply I am putting Canterbury down in any way. Certainly not, it is a beautiful city. Getting lost in the classic British rabbit-warren road layouts, the creaking old 16thC shops leaning so far into their neighbour you wonder if they’ll be there the next time you come, the recently finished and actually pretty smart-looking new Marlowe Theatre, boat trips up the small canal with a young Richard O’Brian type boatman making you cackle and of course, that stunner of a Cathedral to finish off; a building beautiful enough, a space poignant enough, to make any old hardened atheist such as myself concede that, OK, there is ONE good thing to come out of organised religion.

But it still doesn’t fool me. Behind the shiny coffee bars, endless pasta chains and stonking architecture lies a city that is actually Kentish to the bone. A through-town just like Dartford and Chatham; a stopover with a history of vagrant clientele and a pretty rough reputation outside the tourist trail. But that legacy also comes with far less of the bourgeois trendy snobbishness which often abounds in the affluence of centrality. It’s why for all its faults I still love Dartford, and it’s why Kent will always be home to me.

It’s also pretty great for taking photos, especially when combined with a bright sunny day. We took a detour via Folkestone on the way back so a couple of these were taken there (hence the boats). Enjoy.

All photos taken on a Nikon D60

DSC_0407 DSC_0341 DSC_0233 DSC_0388 DSC_0347 DSC_0271 DSC_0414 DSC_0417 DSC_0423