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The Artist and his Model 1919-21

It is rare that an artist can transform a space such as the galleries at Tate Modern; rarer still to transform you, within it, into an entirely different state of mind; and even rarer to achieve these with purely 2D media. But Edvard Munch, along with the curators at Tate, has done just that.

The new Munch retrospective opened last week, following the extremely opportune timing of The Scream 1893 auctioning, which propelled the painter to the forefront of current public interest. Not that Munch has ever really been forgotten; The Scream is endlessly parodied across all art forms. It is a shame though to think of the many disappointed faces when they realise that neither the scream is on show, nor the Madonna 1894-5, another classic Munch. However I feel quite sure that any initial frozen smiles will soon melt to real furrowed brows of concentration and absorption as visitors get whisked away into Munch’s dreamlike world.

Initially, in this William Blake-esque setting, where pronounced yet unstable verticals abound and focus refuses to submit to standard optics, you feel somewhat comfortable; as if a traveller in a pastoral narrative. Then you notice that the couple you spotted kissing tenderly is named Vampyr 1893-4, and the mother and child sharing an embrace is titled The Sick Child 1885-7. As if in a dream, comfort and menace intertwine; contrasting versions of works are displayed facing one another with you suspended in the middle, caught up in a fundamental struggle which permeates the rest of the paintings.

Vampire 1893-4

The Sick Child 1885-7

One of the most fascinating elements of this show is the photographic experimentation and documentation of Munch’s interest in the new pioneering visual machines. Photography was relatively new at the time; Kodak had developed the first mass-marketed camera in 1901 – the Brownie. The sometimes transcendental effect of the photographs, created through over-exposure and double negatives, tied in with Munch’s own curiosity about spirituality as well as giving him an outlet for self-reflection. Munch dealt with an inner struggle, a fact which is well-documented due to his breakdown in later life, and threads of these issues do seem to shine through in his work. Looking through his photographs I felt a sudden concern that these images felt inherently personal. Much like the public/private battle of Gillian Wearing, I was torn between the fascination of voyeuristic intrigue and the moral inhibition around questions of personal privacy. Did Munch want these to be on show? Some show him in strange poses, and even naked; were they intended for public consumption or were they an intimate exploration of self?

Rosa Meissner at the Hotel Rohn in Warnemunde 1907

Self-portrait on Warnemünde beach 1907

One theme which repeats throughout his paintings is that of the outward gaze. I call it a gaze, when what I really mean is a stare. Often threatening, sometimes unsettling, but usually menacing. Rarely does a figure smile at the viewer from the canvas. Paintings such as Workers on their way home ’13-14 portray frightening and aggressive stances towards the viewer. Was this how Munch saw the world? Are we the figure in the painting or is he? This motif continues in The Artist and his Model ’19-21, Murder on the Road ’19 and Red Virginia Creeper ’88-89 and creates an unsettling tension between viewer and painting. In Street in Asgardstrand ’01, the figure is there, albeit not so seemingly malevolent; but its very situation and directness still set the viewer on edge. In the background, roads and pathways regularly appear, perhaps signifying ways to escape from his own state of mind. A group of people are often nearer to the path, but the solitary figure in the foreground remains, fixed and looking out from the frame; the way is there, but only in the peripheral.

Murder on the road 1919

Red Virginia Creeper 1888-9

Street in Asgardstrand 1901

Throughout the exhibition I felt the overwhelming sense of an artist ahead of his time. Despite the obvious influence of the Impressionist movement on his work, with its veritable myriad of conspicuous brushstrokes and deep variation of tone and colour, Munch’s ability to communicate tension through style and medium is sometimes reminiscent of very modern day artists. In Self-Portrait Facing Left ’12-13, he uses woodcutting to create a representation of self-image through a series of disconcertingly violent scratches. The composition of the piece I found reminiscent of Francis Bacon, creating form and raw emotion with fast movements. No wonder they named him an Expressionist. His Kiss in the Fields ’43 is intrinsically minimalist; the natural texture and grain of the wood contrasting against the sharp, imposed scoring of the suggested coupling. This piece could sit quite inconspicuously in a modern art gallery. Another of his pieces which could easily blend into not just a gallery, but a specific exhibition, is Yellow Log ’12. Anyone who saw the recent David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy could not fail to spot the extreme similarity between this motif and Hockney’s newer works; the comparisons are there in colour, form, style and technique.

Kiss in the fields 1943

The Yellow Log 1912

I hope that both Hockney and Bacon, as well as many other artists, would happily admit their debt to this great painter (Hockney for one could hardly deny it). His skill in conveying memories and emotions as almost lost in that moment between dream and wake; his ability to pick out the sharp points in those hazes, whilst still rendering the featureless forms in the background with inherent purpose. Towards the end of his life these nightmarish scenarios became reality for a period during his breakdown, in this period his paintings became less concerned with faceless shadows in the peripheral and more of a confrontation with solitary mortality. His work continues to fascinate us, and not just because he provides an insight into mental illness, but because we recognise his universal struggle with the human condition.

Poor Doris Salcedo. Like the injustice of a serious musician permeating the public consciousness for the appearance of just one of their songs on a car advert, Doris is a household name mainly as a result of her Turbine Hall installation Shibboleth ’07. Not that the installation was commercial or of less quality than her other works, but recently someone actually referred her to me as ‘that crack woman’. I think Doris deserves more. Her name should be bigger than it currently is outside of the artistic inner sanctum that is the world of collectors and academicians. But I get the impression that Doris isn’t much of a self-publicist, likely more through choice than inability. Her work portrays a character at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Hirsts and Emins and even Picassos of this world.

Shibboleth ’07

I never got to see the famous ‘great crack’ as it has been named by some, although I felt deeply disappointed that I didn’t, after listening to Roger Lloyd-Pack read Adrian Mitchell’s poem The Song of The Great Crack aloud at a Stop The War meeting and almost reducing the audience entirely to tears. The poem records the writer’s emotional reaction to the installation and though it is too long to recreate now, I shall cite a short piece and strongly recommend you buy the book and read it in full:

and the great crack / is Lethe the river of forgetfulness / which the mass media drinks each night / to wash away the past

and the great crack / is the cry of massacred innocents/ poor hungry raped or murdered /

and the great crack / is the handwriting of an alien / whose love letter to the human race says: / meme meme tekel upharsin / you have been weighed in the balance / and found wanting

and the great crack / is despair / that useless emotion / which sometimes threatens / to flood the mind

As can be fairly easily gleaned even from this small extract, Doris Salcedo’s work deals with life, death and the politics in between. Unlike someone like Damien Hirst, however, her message is understated. The power is in the restraint. Dignity and strength of mind deal with mortality, not through morbid curiosity but with a quiet despair and grim anger. Less is more here.

Shibboleth ’07 – Detail

Approaching that wonderfully compact and minimal White Cube outpost, hidden away down an alley in Mason’s Yard, I was intrigued to see what Salcedo had created next. The first piece on the ground floor, A Flor de Piel ’11-12 surprised me straight off. Having seen detail photographs of the work in reviews and such like, I had somehow imagined it as a wall hanging when zoomed out. I’m glad it wasn’t. The piece is intended to give the impression of a giant shroud and consists of thousands of Rose petals, waxed and carefully stitched together to create an undulating mass covering 2/3 of the floor in the ground floor gallery.

A Flor de Piel ’11-12

On passing through the doorway and seeing this, my first thought was actually not of a shroud but of a landscape, mountainous and vast. The wax used to preserve the petals gives the material a leather-like appearance in texture; when bunched and folded this works with the variations in colour and tone to create a scene resembling a bird’s eye view not dissimilar to that of South American desert regions. This may not have been the intention of Salcedo, but I liked her interpretation too; the death shroud created through careful manipulation of the fragility of life, to speak for those whose lives were also carefully manipulated, although without the care which went into this work (Salcedo took inspiration from the concept of offering flowers to a victim of torture). It has a certain poetic irony to it.

A Flor de Piel ’11-12 – Detail
A Flor de Piel ’11-12 – Detail

The lower ground floor housed her newest work, Plegaria Muda and was an altogether appropriate place to situate it. I wasn’t immediately sure what to make of the numerous tables laid out one on top of another, but I was struck by the aesthetic uniformity of the upstanding tables, which put me in mind of large dead insects with their legs reaching in vain to the heavens. On closer inspection I saw flashes of green protruding from the underside of the top table and as my eyes scanned downwards, discovered a layer of carefully placed soil in between the upright top table and the bottom one standing.

Plegaria Muda ’08-10

The connection with burial and coffins was immediately clear (the work is an homage to Colombian victims of army-sanctioned mass murder) but the overwhelming message portrayed through this installation is of the triumph of life over death. Salcedo seems to be making a fierce statement – you can kill and maim us, break our families and communities in the name of unjust wars, but out spirit will live on through them and others we connect with; we will not be forgotten.

Plegaria Muda ’08-10

The exhibition is on until 30th June so hurry yourself down to Mason’s Yard. Don’t miss this.

Sitting on the bus in traditional Central London traffic, I mused upon my recent visit to the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition at Tate Britain and tried to decipher what had transpired to be a distinctly underwhelming experience. I already knew of course; I had been feeling it build as I walked around, like a volcano preparing to erupt situated deep in my soul. I was filled with frustration and annoyance at the disjointed narrative portrayed through the curatorial choices. The exhibition has been laid out as a study of Picasso in relation to other artists and historical context. In principle, as an art history student, you would think this is completely up my street. Seemingly not so.

Whilst walking around the show I had a strong sense of emotive deja vu and was struck by the realisation that this exasperated sensation was not a new one. Indeed, I felt like this throughout much of my degree course. A word of warning for those preparing to step into the art historical world – being interested in art and interested in history does not necessarily mean you will be at all interested in art history. For me personally, my flame of interest was extinguished when a large proportion of the subject began to revolve around collectors, collecting habits and the so-called connoisseurs and critics; tales of rich aristocrats spending their limitless stash of spare money on new art to show off to their peers and the celebrated elitism of a select few who really know what art is about . As someone of socialist values I found the whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth.

Unfortunately, the Picasso exhibition revived my distaste for this capitalist academia and it did rather put me off. To make matters worse the text was not only captioned for the room summary but also for each individual image and I was heartily encouraged to hire an audio guide – thankfully I had the insight to decline. Had I not, I do believe my brain may have exploded on a white minimalist wall somewhere between Bacon and Moore, through sheer insipid fact overload. I do realise a good many people will disagree with me on this. In fact, everyone at the Tate seemed blissfully submerged in their audio-guided universes as I gaped, incredulous, at their baffling zen-like calm.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the exhibition at all. I found the links with other well-known artists, often significantly different to Picasso in style, quite engaging and was not aware of many of the connections beforehand. However, I think one room would have sufficed to explore this point. From Picasso to Duncan Grant to Ben Nicholson to Francis Bacon to Henry Moore (and others), all the while referencing back to Picasso in fits and starts, resulted in a decidedly stilted journey through British art history. On the other hand it was intriguing to see how Picasso experimented with and played with different styles, often in relation to contemporaries he admired; never before had I seen Flowers ‘1901, an unusual foray into Impressionism.

Flowers 1901

Of the Picassos on display, three in particular shone through the dreary narrative and proved yet again what an astounding communicator of emotion he is; The Frugal Meal ‘1904, Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32, and Weeping Woman ’37, (which, once viewed, usually turns me into just that). The frugal meal is a beautiful and understated etching, the restraint of colour and medium mirroring the sparsity of the situation depicted – a poor and starving couple with only a small piece of bread to eat. The form of the figures echo works from his blue period such as The Blind Man’s Meal ‘1904 and Old Man with Guitar ’93.

The Frugal Meal 1904

The Blind Mans Meal 1903

Nude Woman in Red Armchair ’32 is at first glance a total contrast to this, however the two pieces both utlise Picasso’s ability to convey high emotion through form, structure and colour (or lack of it). Sweeping curves and pastel shades speak to me of sexuality, fertility and femininity, channelling the African influences often favoured by Picasso, and could be seen to represent the womb, the life cycle and the moon. It is an astounding piece which still looks like nothing else I’ve ever seen. The first time I saw Weeping Woman ’37 I accidentally stumbled across it whilst coming around a corner in a small gallery and was metaphorically floored by its impact. Picasso has used his unique device of depicting a viewpoint from many angles to maximum effect in this piece. The juxtaposition of different perspectives create the illusion that the piece is moving; the woman looks to me as if she is actually weeping in front of our eyes. The force of the painting is intensified through the sharp angles and almost garish colours, which convey extreme, mixed emotion and grieving hysteria. The painting bleeds anguish.

Nude Woman in Red Armchair 1932

Weeping Woman 1937

If you had a desire to categorise them, I’m sure there are infinite gradations of art lover types, but for this exhibition it seems prudent to pinpoint just two. Neither is better or worse than the other, just different. The first likes to understand the context and background to a piece; what the artist meant, what they were experiencing. The history and life of the work since its creation has primary significance and interest to them and having this knowledge serves to enhance their experience of the artwork. The second, in contrast, create stories and feelings in their mind as they take in works of art. By using the artwork as a starting point, the end point is wherever they want it to be. The thoughts, feelings and intentions of the artist sometimes matter and sometimes not. They define the work according to how and if it touches them and to define it by the opinions of another person, critic or artist, is to lose all joy from its observation. I know for sure now that I am one of the latter. Which are you?

The Studio at Islington Arts Factory

Last September, after a valuable tip off from an acquaintance, I found myself at the inaugural exhibition of Artbox – a charity providing art workshops in Islington for young adults with learning difficulties. Held in the foyer of the Prince’s Foundation in Shoreditch, the evening showcased some astounding works. As I wound my way through the pulsing crowds, I absorbed the aesthetics and the range of styles and techniques being displayed and (even after promising myself this was purely window shopping), soon found 3 or 4 pieces I wanted to buy. But this was a silent auction, and the competition for each piece soon became clear, as a suited man stood territorially in front of his favourite choice proclaiming ‘none of you want this picture, I’m telling you, you don’t want it!’ After eventually finding a work for which I hadn’t already been outbid, I swiftly put my name down and ticked the box ‘would like to volunteer’. 10 months later and I’m the proud owner of a screenprint ‘Owl’ by Gary, and am a helper at the weekly workshop sessions in the Islington Arts Factory.

Students hard at work

Since working with Artbox I’ve been utterly amazed. Not just by the fabulous work being produced week in, week out, by a group of talented and previously unrecognised artists, but by the relentless hard work and dedication committed to the enterprise by Madeline and Jenny, the charity’s directors. It is astounding that small charities such as this go relatively unnoticed. As with other sectors, people generally notice the big daddies. The Oxfams and Greenpeaces are all well and good and do fantastic work, but they overshadow the little guys – fighting to be noticed, to get funding, to get support and interest, for work which makes a huge difference to people’s lives.

If you hadn’t already gathered by now, I’m a big believer in art for all and of the benefit of art to the individual as well as society as a whole. With Artbox I’ve seen first hand the effect it can have on people, particularly those with learning difficulties, as we watch their exploration, confidence and independence develop in leaps and bounds. There is understanding here, as well as respect. Madeline Alterman, the founder of Artbox, has a brother with Down’s Syndrome and has worked with people with physical and learning disabilities. She felt, rightly, that disabled people are under-represented in the art world and not viewed on an equal footing with those whom are able-bodied, which is both a shameful injustice and also a great loss to the general public. Then came a stroke of genius. Rather than merely hanging and displaying the works, how about selling them? The resulting exhibition and silent auction was a resounding success. 60% of the sale was given directly to the artist, and 40% put back into future funding for Artbox.

Madeline with a student

I started helping out just after this first exhibition and remember being told by one young man, with total belief in his eyes, that he will be a professional artist. I believe him. His work is a combination of graphic design and illustration through mixed media. It is astounding in its emphatic expression and fluid production. Artbox provides him with a space free from the bureaucratic levels and targets of traditional learning. His only target is to produce what he considers his best work.

The spirit of the charity and it’s inclusive, engaging, and sometimes very entertaining ethos (flashback to dancing wildly around the room to Michael Jackson with one of the students) was captured recently by a local school taking part in a film-making competition. They were asked to showcase a small charity doing important things and wisely chose Artbox. Thanks to their expert skills, and the photogenic nature of our students and volunteers, their film won the competition and landed Artbox with a well-deserved boost in funding, meaning more materials for the group and potentially some more sketching day trips.

The next Artbox exhibition will take place on 20th July at Mazars, Tower Bridge, with works for sale. If you would like to attend you will need to put your name on the guest list. You can do this by emailing madeline@artboxlondon.org.

If you would like to help out, get involved or donate to Artbox please visit their website www.artboxlondon.org.

It’s 2012. It’s nearly Summer (supposedly). You’re bored of going to see artworks by ultra-famous artists in a silent, sterile gallery setting. What to do? Go to some smaller, less restrictive galleries? Search out some local artists? Get your supplies out and start creating some tantalising guerrilla art in the South Kensington underpass? All good plans, although the third may earn you some extra time in another very different confined space, so maybe drop that one off your list.

What about…an art fair? No I’m not talking about your local craft-style fair, with trestle tables leading dizzyingly into the horizon and a small town’s worth of kids legging it full speed to the bouncy castle – although they can be great too.  I’m talking about art fairs such as Frieze, which I had my first experience of in October last year.  Frieze is a contemporary art fair which showcases the latest works being sold by top galleries. It is essentially a commercial enterprise, a fact unbeknownst to me, a mere mortal, as I wandered through. Obviously no prices are displayed or catalogues given out to point out that I could, very much theoretically, buy these works. The gallery owners can smell the money (or in my case, lack of it) and I was therefore left happily alone to wander around. For hours. And hours. And hours. The place is immense. I had just begun to go the art equivalent of snow-blind when I decided it might be time to sit down and stare at the floor for a while to give my synapses a chance to regenerate.

    

I might sound as if I’m being negative about Frieze; I’m actually not. I just felt it was beyond me. It didn’t feel designed for me. For a start the focus was on galleries. I’m interested in Art. Less so in its commercial value, its collectability etc. The business side of art is to me a sad necessity. It’s the death of a bee after its sting. It’s the parent that sends their child to a school 2 hours away to get them a good education. It’s a shame, but what’s the alternative? I don’t have an answer to that. The fact that Frieze is set out by gallery is a pretty clear indicator that a lot of people visiting will know where they’re going and will have a plan of action. I didn’t. Hence the snow-blind episode. However, on the positive side the gallery format actually means that you see an eclectic array of artworks by some very different artists. It gives you a sliver of insight into what’s ‘in vogue’ for the art-producing international elite. I found it interesting to see a focus on mirrored/shiny surfaces used as canvas. Ceramic tiles, black mirrors, standard mirrors, reflective metals; some painted, some manipulated, some used as a sculptural base. Fabrics were also a strong theme, and popular with the public too, judging by the crowds loitering by certain pieces.

      

  

I’m soon to try out another event, taking place on May 10th – 13th. The Other Art Fair is a new concept whereby the artists shown are unrepresented ie. they are not being shown by a gallery but by themselves. I must say this approach is more appealing to my liberal values than that of the traditional gallery sale. The pieces are affordable, even for me, at £50 upwards, although this in itself is not revolutionary. Throughout the year the Affordable Art Fair weaves its way across the world selling works costing up to a maximum of £4000. The London leg of the AAF at Battersea takes place 25-28 Oct 2012 which is…hmmm let me see, 2 weeks after the Frieze show. Coincidence? I imagine not. Whet our whistles with the big stuff, let us be all weepy and disappointed that we fell in love but were just not rich enough to make the cut. Then swoop in with the revelation that we can have some beautiful art, that there is a show made just for us. The galleries still get their pounds (albeit a little less) to top up their coffers, and we go away grinning with our new acquisition to show off to Janet next door. Clever marketing team.

At least with The Other Art Fair you’re buying from the source. Only for the moment of course, they don’t make any secret of the fact that these newbies will be signed by a gallery at some point, but for the moment they are still ours, we still matter to them. The passing over of their work to someone else has not yet taken on it’s full business-like format and still has an element of emotion and attachment. I hope to see an artist clinging to their sculpture screaming ‘No! I won’t let you take it! It doesn’t belong with you! You don’t understand it!. That’s the vibe I’m going for. I hope it lives up to my expectations…

NB. I’m afraid when I visited Frieze I didn’t know I would be doing this blog and so i didn’t make a note of all the artist’s names when browsing. If you have a burning desire to know who they are by, I’m sure you could email Frieze a copy of the picture and ask, or buy a copy of the catalogue. Worth a try.