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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.

I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds ’06

I find the witchhunt against Damien Hirst odd in its singling out of just one man. The nature of the art market is for as much money to change hands as possible, in order to invest for a higher sale in the future. It’s fat cat gambling, basically. Stock market politics. The industry is responsible for germinating the notion that the more grossly overpriced a work is, the more worthy it must be – a fallacy which fills my bones with anger and disgust. So if Hirst’s works are not Art and not worth anything, then surely it’s the market who’s the fool in this situation? I’m not sure how that is more Damien Hirst’s fault than any other artist. Maybe he played the system. Well, don’t shoot the messenger. Not half as many column inches have been written about arms dealers who make billions from selling weapons to violent dictatorships, yet somehow people see that as less of an affront than Hirst whipping off spot paintings ten to the dozen. Remarkably, people seem genuinely offended, as if our very nation has somehow been tarnished by this so-called ‘charlatan’.

Making my way around the controversial Tate retrospective, I found the legendary Spot Paintings  difficult to deal with. Having grown up in the 90s, the spots are, to me, synonymous with modern British art and to look at them objectively and try to provoke a response was surprisingly onerous. Too much has been said and written about them already. My head was full of Saatchi and Sewell and Guardian Arts. I don’t dislike the paintings, although I found them rather tiresome after the third or fourth piece, a feeling which also covers my response to his Medicine Cabinets ’89. To decipher the message he was trying to portray through the choice of medicines in each cabinet and on each spot-covered canvas seemed just too much like hard work. So how about the much-discussed fact that a lot of these pictures are produced by assistants in his studio? Well, so what? Leonardo did it, Michelangelo did it, blah blah blah. What is wrong about it is that the other artists in the team are not credited for their contributing work. Maybe the lead artist should take the main credit, for the concept and design, then the team receive listed credits and a share of the royalties.

lodomethane 13c ’99-01

As everyone must now know (unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 20 years) Hirst’s work is strongly themed around the life cycle; birth, death and mortality. Earlier works, such as Away from the Flock ’94, evoke the spirit of a young Hirst searching for meaning and using his own place in the cosmos to ask those very same questions he had seen tackled in countless works of art throughout history. Vanitas symbolism is explicit in Hirst’s works; skulls, butterflies, decay, but depicted in a unique way. Had Hirst followed tradition and produced gloomy oil paintings containing these connotations of mortality (see Pieter Claesz) his work would not have broken boundaries and become so representative of modern British art. In A Thousand Years ’90, a symbolic sculptural piece expressing the nature of the life cycle, Hirst manages to create a poignant visual language which references the Vanitas movement whilst placing his work within the modernist, technological zeitgeist.

Away From the Flock ’94

A Thousand Years ’90

His later pieces, in comparison, seem to radiate a dark, bitter and violent hysteria; they play out the cliched tale of optimistic, inquisitive youth morphing into the vitriolic older man resigned to his fate.The pieces seem to spit death at the viewer like venom. In contrast to the curious anatomical element of Mother and Child Divided ’93, for example (at which I heard someone whisper ironically ‘eww that’s disgusting…ooh is that bit a rump steak?’), his more recent pieces I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds ’06 and Black Sun ’04 (hundreds of thousands of dead flies glued to resin on a perfect circle) portray a deeply disturbing and gruesome cynicism. The latter in particular seems to just revel in repugnant mass destruction and provoked images in my mind of blood spattered murderers grinning at their spoils.

Mother and Child Divided ’93

Black Sun ’04

Black Sun Detail

Both Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II ’06, and  Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven ’07, are aesthetically beautiful whilst hopelessly morbid. Hirst disassembles the pure artistry of nature, in the form of millions of butterflies, and reconstructs them to fit the human idea of beauty; that of order and tessellation ie. stained glass windows. He appears to be mocking the chaos and non-conformity of nature by forcing it to yield to his power; that of his life over their death.

Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II ’06

Doorways to Heaven ’07

This theme continues in the installation In and Out of Love ’91, possibly the most controversial work of the whole show. I, like many others, found the work distasteful. These creatures are not already dead like his other specimens, but living and trapped inside a white-walled room. It was extremely sad to watch them fluttering at the walls and floors trying to get out. But perhaps this is one of Hirst’s points about mortality and the human response. It’s interesting that we can be so horrified by the carcass of an animal we are happy to eat every Sunday with our roasties, and that we don’t mind sticking a thousand chickens in less space than the dimensions of their body from the start of their short lives until they are on our plate, but we shy away from butterflies having a restricted lifespan. Maybe because they’re pretty? We have been de-sensitised to cows and chickens over the years, but butterfly beauty wins the awards in the commercialism stakes. Our response to death is so varied depending on how it is presented to us, it smacks of hypocrisy.

In and Out of Love ’91 / ’12

With his later works becoming increasingly acrimonious, in an ironic way Hirst is himself becoming a symbol of the decay which so fascinates him. Alas, he cannot join his cows and sheep in suspended animation…although, well, you never know.

At 11.30am last Sunday morning, when by all rights I should have been curled up in a duvet having my brain comfortably numbed by T4, I was instead watching a large man have ink punched into the skin under his chin with what initially looked like a shark’s tooth tied to a piece of wood. I witnessed this bizzare sight at the Great British Tattoo Show, being held for the first time this year at the Olympia in Hammersmith.

I was soon informed by the boyfriend that this was the traditional form of Maori tattooing, using sharpened albatross bone, dipped in ink, tied to a stick and tapped with another piece of wood to break the skin and insert the dye. Although a bit of a self-confessed tattoo lover, I admit this was a pain barrier too far for me. Not so for many others, though, who rushed to get their names down for the next booking. The Maori tattooing was one of the better stalls at the convention, which was overall sadly disappointing and had a cheap, amateur and chucked together boot-fair aura to it, but did spark some interesting topics of debate.

I was struck at this ‘convention’ by the seemingly unshakeable bond between the tattoo sector and half-naked women writhing around in their underwear. The ‘entertainment’ seemed a bit gratuitous. Actually, very gratuitous. Whilst watching some young, clearly inexperienced girls on stage trying to dance seductively and failing miserably, I got a familiar uncomfortable feeling. That same feeling of discomfort I got whilst walking through the red light district in Amsterdam in broad daylight – that this was seedy, surreal and above all, awkward. It’s a shame, as the tattoos themselves were fabulous. I am by no means a prude, but I wished that the girls would wear shorts and strappy tops and just be the canvas for the tattoos, without all the sleaze. It gave me feminist rumblings in my soul which I couldn’t ignore. If only the tattoos were about the tattoos, whether they are on young or old, man or woman, breast or beer belly.

                 The whole idea of woman as sex object is entrenched in this atmosphere though – one of the most popular types of tattoo is the pin-up girl, or the naked woman with the impossibly big breasts. These types of tattoo were displayed by men long before it became acceptable in modern society for women to take part in this culture. They could have and still could be seen as, men attempting to possess the image of woman by having them permanently represented on their body. When do you ever see ‘pin up men’ tattoos? Ironically, a Google search for that exact phrase gave the top result as ‘pin up girl tattoos for men’. It may be tradition, but surely this just perpetuates the now hopefully outdated view that the purpose of the female body is purely to satisfy the male gaze.

The flip side of this argument, of course, is that this is the empowerment of women and the reclaiming of our bodies. Women who choose what they want to do with their bodies and have pride in who they are and their femininity. Absolutely. To be on an equal footing with men in this culture, we should be able to produce art on our bodies in the same way and be viewed in the same way. You could say this has improved somewhat as tattooing has become more socially acceptable, but the idea of the tattooed woman as loose and trashy is ultimately still portrayed today. Tattooing is still seen as a predominantly male experience and women who have tattoos are seen as trying to be like men. This association antagonises every conservative echelon of society and inevitably results in women with tattoos automatically tagged as ‘bad girls’. A book on the philosophy of tattooing by Robert Arp discusses this idea and looks at how “The idea of tattooed women as sexually promiscuous or deviant remains an enduring misogynist stereotype”. I agree, and by linking tattooing to naked women and seductive ‘seven veils’ style dancing, we only serve to perpetuate that view.

So why isn’t tattooing given more credit as an art form? Why is it forced to showcase itself in this ‘alternative’ way? I know the answer really, it’s art elitism. It’s Brian Bloody Sewell. In my view, tattooing has to be one of the most technically skilled art forms. The artists get one chance to produce. No rubbers, no new pieces of canvas. They have to get it right that first time or you are marked with a bad tattoo forever. I know this does happen, inevitably, but there are many great tattoo artists out there who create stunning pieces of art on the canvas of the human body day in, day out.

                

Tattoo has become an art form in itself, but in the same way as graffiti art has, ie. it is a self-confessed art form. Before the Banksy explosion brought graffiti art to the masses, it was a separatist movement, with equal animosity between the artists and the art establishment. In many ways it still is, but you now often see these works in gallery settings, something you rarely or never see with tattooing. Perhaps this is how they want it, and in many ways I don’t blame them. Why should they bow to the elitists? Why ‘sell out’?

But I would love to see a coming together of the art world and the tattoo world. Throw off the biker clichès and the stereotypical prosecco-filled private views and merge together to create a new form of display. Somewhere between Gormley’s static figures and Emin’s humanism, with the tattoo culture at its centre. With the body as canvas we are the art. We are both the messenger and the recipient – from Us to Us. When you look at it like that, what could be more empowering?

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.