Square Root of Instagram

In 2006 at Channel 4 (London) I commissioned a mobile-centred website called Big Art Mob. It enabled users to publish photos of Public Art (from sculptures to graffiti) from their mobile phones. In other words, it was basically Instagram 4 years before Instagram was invented. It was created with digital all-rounder Alfie Dennen (father of We Are Not Afraid) using a photo-publishing platform he had developed with partners named Moblog. I had been experimenting with Moblog for 18 months when a TV project about Public Art (The Big Art Project) came over the horizon and it struck me as an ideal place to apply Moblog technology.

The main difference from Instagram is that Big Art Mob’s photos were not in square format.

Today I went to see the Klimt / Schiele exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. I have been a big admirer of Schiele since I heard about him from David Bowie on a radio programme around the time Lodger was released (1979). At the time the Austrian painter was little known outside cognoscenti circles (eg the Marlborough Gallery in London). I was taught a little by Frank Whitford at Cambridge who wrote the Phaidon monograph on Schiele. And I won a travel scholarship at Girton to go study his work in Vienna around 1984. Last year while working at ORF in Vienna I got to do a bit of a self-shaped Schiele tour to mark the centenary of his death which I wrote about in On The Trail of Egon Schiele. I even had a stab at a Schiele in a painting class I recently attended locally:

adam gee copy of egon schiele painting

The exhibition was excellent, bringing out the contrast between how and why Schiele and his mentor Klimt drew. Along the way it reminded me of Klimt’s distinctive adoption of the square format in his portrait painting. Which got me thinking about which other artists went square.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is a painting by Gustav Klimt, completed between 1903 and 1907. The portrait was commissioned by the sitter's husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish banker and sugar producer. The painting was stolen by the Nazis in 1941 and displayed at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt (1903-1907)

Klimt’s famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is 1.38m by 1.38m. It was commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish banker and sugar producer, husband of Adele. The painting was notoriously stolen by the Nazis in 1941 and displayed at Schloss Belvedere in Vienna, until being returned by the Austrian courts to Bloch-Bauer’s heirs in 2006 at which point it found a new home in New York. It is considered the zenith of Klimt’s golden period. It uses Klimt’s trademark technique of cropping the figure top and bottom to create a pillar through the canvas, here set slightly right to allow the bulk of the patterned dress or aura to balance the composition.

Square and portraits reminded me of the excellent Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain last year. The square format works particularly well in the double portraits which were the beating heart of that show.

My Parents 1977 by David Hockney born 1937

My Parents by David Hockney (1977)

The emotionally resonant My Parents is 1.83m by 1.83m, even more epic than the Klimt, yet with the most down-to-earth subjects. Each parent occupies their own half in a very different way – attentive mum, square on, in her own space; pre-occupied dad, at an angle, overlapping the furniture – subtly capturing the difference in parent-child relationship.

Hockney was born on 9th July 1937, eight days before my dad. Nine days later another German Jew, Gerda Taro, died in Spain. She has the tragic distinction of being the first female photojournalist to have been killed while covering war at the frontline. This evening I started watching My Private War for this year’s BAFTA judging, starring Rosamund Pike as Marie Colvin, a latter day Taro. Recently, also for voting purposes (BAFTA Documentary Film chapter), I watched the feature documentary Under The Wire, likewise about the life and death of Colvin (killed in Homs, Syria by an Assad regime air-strike). Taro was killed during the Spanish Civil War in a tragic accident involving a reversing Republican tank.

republican woman 1936 gerda taro

Republican militiawoman training on the beach outside Barcelona by Gerda Taro (1936)

Taro was another stand-out squarist. She was partner of Magnum photojournalist Robert Capa. (Capa was introduced to the world by Picture Post in 1938, where my maternal grandfather worked. The Hungarian Jew, who famously lived out of a suitcase for most of his adult life, co-founded the Magnum photo agency with Henri Cartier-Bresson and others.) I saw Tara’s first ever US solo show at the International Center of Photography in New York in 2007. Capa picked up the habit from Taro and there are a number of square photographs attributed to Capa which are widely thought to actually be the work of Taro.

These days I find myself photographing square by default. I’ve enjoyed using Instagram for years as a platform for photography only (none of the Stories bollocks or video). Initially it was an excellent way to syndicate your photos across your social accounts (when it was linked to Flickr – the monopolists must have disconnected on account of Yahoo’s ownership of Flickr I guess). Square poses its own compositional challenges which by and large I enjoy rising to – there are not that many shots I take which can’t be accommodated in the stable, equal-sided space. It encourages the use of diagonals which can be dynamic. Here’s one of my favourite of my square compositions:

statue of george orwell outside the BBC (New Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London)

Statue of George Orwell outside the BBC (New Broadcasting House, Portland Place, London) March 2018

The square is stable enough to carry the two dark figures on the right side. Orwell’s statue is characteristically smoking, hence the appeal of the BBC smoker – both are fag in hand. Of course Orwell like Taro was a graduate of the Spanish Civil War but he made it home to the BBC and to die in the relatively civilised surroundings of UCH (University College Hospital, established by two of my distant ancestors on the Picture Post grandfather’s side, and where both my boys were born). Orwell’s house (at 1 South End Road) is along the same road in Hampstead/Parliament Hill where my dad grew up. He was a child of refugees from Nazi Germany.

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear

To round off these square stories, Taro was given a funeral, attended by thousands, by the Communist Party of France. She was buried at Père Lachaise on 1st August 1937 (what would have been her 27th birthday) in a grave designed by Alberto Giacometti. On the tomb is written, in French and Catalan

So nobody will forget your unconditional struggle for a better world

Fast-forward to the summer of 2016 – an open-air display of Taro’s Spanish Civil War photos was included in the f/stop photography festival in Leipzig. Leipzig is where my dad was born in July 1937 in the shadow of the Nazi fascist regime, a swastika and eagle on his birth certificate. When f/stop ended, it was decided that the display would become permanent. This was partly financed through crowdfunding. On the night of 3rd/4th August 2016 (two days after Taro’s 106th birthday), the display was destroyed by being daubed with black tar-like paint. This dark act of destruction was widely suspected to be motivated by anti-semitism or anti-refugee politics. A further crowdfunding campaign more than raised the €4,000 required to restore the vandalised photos. The equal and opposite forces of creativity and destruction, light and dark, squared up to one another.

Be there and be square.

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