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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.

William Klein, Bikini, Moscow, 1959. Image courtesy of Tate

Have you spoken to a single person who doesn’t like black and white photography? Those who look disdainfully at monochrome images, convinced of their lesser artistic capacity? If so, they are surely in the minority. It seems to be ingrained in our modern aesthetic values that when it comes to colour and photography, less is more.

A rather generalistic statement I admit, and one which doesn’t come without a good few exceptions. But, from my own experience certainly, black and white appears to be favourite, particularly when capturing gritty city scenes, or images with an element of sinister undertone. Perhaps it is because it is unusual to our visual senses; we see in colour. To observe a scene which we know intellectually is in colour, but is in our visual field desaturated, may be intriguingly unusual to us. Perhaps it is less fundamental; more closely linked to social conditioning, culture, environment. To a large proportion of society, (and particularly my generation, brought up on a bloated diet of Hollywood blockbusters) the American film industry’s perception and subsequent projection of morals, life plans, love and everything else, was indoctrinated in us from an early age. We lapped it up; the escapist dream delivered to our doors in brightly coloured tardis-esque 80’s Video Vans. Even back then we understood that black and white films were adult, and thus, boring. Of course, that’s because they actually were adult. TV and film in black and white was reserved for the memory of our grandparents’ childhood, or intellectual art-house films frequented by beardy oxford types with glasses, smoking cigarillos (I want to be that cliche).

In the days when all films were in black and white and the Hollywood industry had yet to discover emotional subtlety in filmmaking, it was just the way it was. Viewers were astounded when the first technicolor film was released; ironic really, as colour is actually more natural to us than black and white. In short, society has been increasingly prompted to associate monochrome with maturity, sophistication and glamour; ‘classic’ black and white. The anti-colours. Dark, brooding, the shade of midnight and the stage-set to most of our irrational fears. The psychological associations of black and white in our culture and consciousness go far deeper than visual art, but suffice it to say that we do afford it a certain artistic significance when it comes to this, particularly in photography.

Daido Moriyama – Provoke no. 2 1969 (printed 2012). Image courtesy of Tate

The William Klein and Daido Moriyama exhibition at Tate Modern showcases in parallel the work of these two key figures in photography over the past 60 years. The exhibition is set out almost as two mini-exhibitions which follow one another, the links between the two artists being suggested by their successive placing but not creating a direct comparison in the line of sight. By utilising this curating method the Tate allows the viewer to draw their own comparisons through memory of just-seen images. The immediate similarity is of course the choice to shoot almost exclusively in monochrome. William Klein, whose dramatic photography adorns the walls of the first 6 or so galleries, captures subjects in their immediate moment. His documentary style is perfected by his ability to portray the scene as if he were not there, as if you, the viewer, are there in that moment. Many of those whom look at the camera give the impression of glancing over your face on their way to something more interesting, others seem completely at ease. It is a singular skill perhaps borne from the knowledge of how to make yourself nonthreatening or inconspicuous to those around you, and likely an element of luck and dogged persistence. Either way, it instills the photographs with unpretentious, genuine drama and voyeurism. For Klein’s images, like Moriyama’s, succeed in conveying both the gritty, tumultuous drama of charged events, as well as the staid reality of everyday in downtown ’60s New York or Tokyo.

William Klein – Armistice Day 1968. Image from Tumblr: dandismodextrarradio

William Klein – Gun 2 New York 1955. Image from Photoforager

William Klein – Elsa Maxwell’s Tory ball, Waldorf Hotel, New York 1955. Image from 1000 Words Photography

Like Klein, Moriyama also began experimenting with manipulative photographic techniques and sometimes other media altogether. But it is clear that both always believed photography to be their fundamental means of expression. Klein’s forays into paint, architecture and sketching always took photography as their basis and attempted to build on it; similarly, Moriyama’s film experiments looked to push the photograph beyond its static boundaries.

William Klein – Dakar, school’s out, 1985. Painted contact 1998. Image courtesy of Tate

They freely recognised the pure motives behind their work. It was refreshing to read Moriyama speak of  photography as “not a means by which to create beautiful art, but a unique way of encountering genuine reality“. A simple, honest and entirely worthwhile explanation for his craft. The beauty of life. Those who love art create it, buy it, view it, read about it, but those who do not consider themselves to be interested in art are mistaken. Their lives are art, each moment a missed Moriyama. The sea-swell of anger through a crowd, a glittering night out in the big city, the frustration or loneliness of a forgotten soul; all unique moments passing by, crying out to be frozen for dramatic effect, but missed. If you take one thing from this exhibition let it be the desire to seek out those seconds; commit them to suspension and allow them to enlighten you. We are art, our lives are art and everything we create. You are an artist.

William Klein – Kiev Railway Station, Moscow 1959. Image from ukhudshanskiy

William Klein – Piazza di Spagna, Rome 1960. Image courtesy of Tate

Daido Moriyama – Memory of Dog 2, 1982. Image courtesy of Tate

William Klein – Gun1 New York City, 1954. Image from Kroutchev Planet Photo

Daido Moriyama – DOCUMENTARY ’78 (’86.4 Setagaya-Ku, Tokyo), 1986. Image courtesy of Tate

William Klein – Candy Store, New York, 1955. Image courtesy of Tate

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.