Archive for the ‘Art and Creativity’ Category
I was working at Chelsea School of Art in Pimlico recently and took the opportunity, after a meeting about a prospective TV programme, to nick into Tate Britain which is directly opposite and see the David Hockney exhibition.
To mark the occasion of this major retrospective, entertaining if a little rammed, I’d like to dig out my Hockney Picture of the Month, Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices, which is in the show of course.
And to add an extra something to celebrate the exhibition I’d like to highlight some other artistic devices in evidence in this show. For the significance of ‘artistic devices’ I’ll quote from my earlier post:
The person portrayed is partly obscured by a pile of (obviously painted) cylinders. Above his head is a shelf on which are a selection of large brushstrokes. The cylinders are crude 3D representations, obvious devices or techniques, which stand out as abstract in a still figurative world of suits and rugs and shelves. The shelf is just a 2D line. The strokes on the shelf are more flat, abstract components of painting, exposing the technique and undermining the illusion. The pile of cylinders is actually painted on a sheet of paper glued to the canvas to leave the viewer in no doubt as to the artifice, physical materiality and flatness of the endeavour.
I had a bit of an art blow-out earlier this week with three thoroughly enjoyable exhibitions in a day:
You Say You Want A Revolution? at the V&A which looks at “records and rebels” from 1966 to 1970 – I went with my friend Kathelin Gray who was present at many of the events showcased and knew many of the people referred to, including Allen Ginsberg who is the person who first brought us together when I was on sabbatical writing in 2013-14. Walking through this excellent display with her certainly added a special, personal dimension. For a while we kicked back on beanbags to watch highlights from the Woodstock movie, including Jimi Hendrix’s era-defining rendition of the Stars & Stripes, perfect for US election day.
The Path Beaten at The Halcyon which for the second time in as many years brings together in London a collection of Bob Dylan’s paintings and sculpture. The images which most appealed were ones like ‘Endless Highway’ which seem of a piece with his songs and how they capture the essence of America. Also perfect for an election day when that could easily get lost.
Sandwiched between was a visit to Bowie / Collector at Sotheby’s, a last viewing of Bowie’s personal collection (minus the stuff of sentimental value) before it went under the auctioneer’s hammer on Thursday 10th and Friday 11th November (yesterday and the day before). I went with my friend Doug to whom I picked out a single painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat as The One. As it turned out that canvas went for £7.1M, the top price at an auction which raised double the expected revenue, in this case more than doubling its top estimate of £3.5M. So I reckon I’ve got a good eye. And what that good eye spied on the day were these…
ONE Lot 22: Jean-Michel Basquiat – Air Power (1984)
For all the bullshitWar(se)hol(e)hype around Basquiat, the young man was a really dynamic artist with a beautiful sense of colour. Bowie played Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s biographical movie. The canvas displays Basquiat’s usual mix of lively paint (acrylic) and fat chalky lines (oilstick) looking like the bastard offspring of a blueprint and a Brooklyn wall. The white ladder shape on the chest and body of the main figure reminds me at once of one of those bone breast decorations Red Indians wear and a railway line reaching westwards. In other words JMB seems to really capture that essence of America.
TWO Lot 4: Peter Lanyon – Trevalgan (1951)
Hot on the heals of the excellent Lanyon exhibition, Soaring Flight, at The Courtauld last Christmas, Bowie/Collector afforded an encounter with another group of Lanyon’s fresh, original landscapes, of which this stood out the most. Trevalgan is a landmark work in Lanyon’s journey of reinvention of landscape painting, tilting it up to become a fusion of map, aerial photo and abstract expressionist take on the Cornwall countryside, the horizon curved around the picture surface on which sea, fields, cliffs and sky are transformed into a gigantic emerald of England.
THREE lot 43: Patrick Caulfield – Foyer (1973)
I’ve always had a soft spot for Caulfield as one inclined to a very graphic style in my own drawing and painting. This large acrylic captures much about modern life in a bland space of the hotel lobby variety (which is not much variety) – to get to anything of interest or colour you have to penetrate to the bar, a small bejewelled space of coloured glass and decorated alcoves, tucked away small in the background distance of the image.
FOUR Lot 101: David Jones – Crucifixion (c.1922)
I suspect Bowie bought this one because the artist shares his real name, plus of course Jones was a highly accomplished religious artist in the vein of Eric Gill. This sparse, stripped down pencil and watercolour drawing captures the agony of the Crucifixion, remembering even to bloody the knees, not just the stigmata. He achieves something truly ancient and in touch with the roots of Christianity.
I felt two things as I left the exhibition. (i) There was so much of it. Too much for any one person to own. It made me feel a bit sick being amongst so much. It must have been a relief for Bowie and his family to offload All This Stuff. David Jones #1’s Christ departs with just a delicate blue loin cloth and a crown of thorns. (ii) Having gone to so much trouble assembling some very fine sub-collections among his overall Collection (mainly of the 20th Century British Art I really love) I wonder why he broke it all up again? Why didn’t he donate little groups to museums to keep them together? I suspect his family don’t really need all £33M of the proceeds.
What Bowie did give – from my little perspective – was an introduction to my ideal drawer and one of my favourite artists, Egon Schiele. I heard him talking about this artist (who I, like most people at the time, had never heard of) on Radio 1 around the time of his Lodger record, the last of the Berlin trilogy. From there a life-long love sprouted. If Bowie had any Schiele’s he kept them back from the sale. The nearest is a single Oskar Kokoschka litho and an Eric Heckel woodcut figure with long boney hands. He certainly had a heroic eye for art. (Though he could have gotten arrested by the design police for his taste in furniture.)
Here’s my solution to the Cecil Rhodes statue controversy in Oxford. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign wants to have the statue of the in many ways rather nasty imperialist taken down from Oriel College, Oxford, his alma mater and beneficiary of his largesse. Rather than tearing down the statue like some dodgy authoritarian regime and airbrushing out history like a bunch of old Commies, let’s add another layer to it like the Brixton-based artist Hew Locke (son of a Guyanese sculptor and a British painter) did on the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. Or put adjacent to it a bigger statue of, say, Nelson Mandela. Let’s add and be constructive…
Locke draped Colston in trading beads, coins and other accoutrements of empire. (Or to be precise, he draped a photo of the statue in this 3D mixed media – but why not do it directly on the statue itself for good (in both senses)? )
You can see some of Locke’s works in the last room of the ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition currently [until 10th April] on show at Tate Britain (ironically – the Tate & Lyle sugar fortune having been arguably built on slavery).
Hew Locke talking about Restoration [2 minute listen]
As we approach the new year it feels like a good moment to reflect on changing perspectives. ‘Rosewall’ is the first of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings. Born in St Ives at the end of the Great War and central to the St Ives Group during the 50s, he took up gliding in 1959, inspired in part by observing the flight of seabirds over his native Cornish landscape, the subject at the heart of his painting. This painting was completed in January 1960, four months after Lanyon started his glider training. Before taking up the glider, he was keen on dramatic high perspectives like cliff edges and hilltops. Rosewall is a hill in Cornwall.
So ‘Rosewall’ was his first work to benefit directly by this new aerial perspective. We are used to the sky sitting blue at the top of the landscape but here it is what frames the whole experience. And the experience is a vortex of air, light and wind. Swirls of white air between us and the green grass and brown earth.
I’m not big on totally abstract painting – I prefer the kind with vestiges of the figurative – grass, earth, sky, clouds, the components of landscape, but combined with the feelings it provokes – vertiginous spectacle, thrill and fear, soaring freedom. Abstract expressionism of a rooted kind. While its head is in the clouds its feet are on the ground. At once airy and earthy.
Lanyon explained his motivation for gliding: “…I do gliding myself to get actually into the air itself; and get a further sense of depth and space into yourself, as it were into your own body, and then carry it through into a painting.” He linked his practice at this time to Turner and saw himself as part of a core English tradition of landscape painting. I love the notion of making possible for yourself a physical expereince so you can subsequently capture it in paint.
For the first time ever a comprehensive collection of Lanyon’s gliding paintings is now on show – in an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, London (running until 17th January 2016). Filling just two rooms, it’s a small but perfectly formed show, well worth catching to experience the ambitious scale of the artworks. This 6′ x 5′ painting normally resides in Belfast in the Ulster Museum.
Lanyon was taught by Victor Pasmore at the Euston Road School and Ben Nicholson in Cornwall. Nicholson was a contemporary at the Slade of Paul Nash whose aerial paintings like Battle of Britain (1941) would seem to be not-so-distant cousins of the Gliding Paintings. I love the landscapes of Nash for their combination of modernity and deep-rooted tradition, as much in the spirit of European Surrealism as in the heritage of English Romanticism. Lanyon is a worthy successor and deserves to be better known.
Previous Pictures of the Month.
I’m in the office, it’s mid-afternoon and a gap’s appeared. I’ll nab it to dash across the park to Sotheby’s to take a look at The Scream. It’s a version in pastels, not oil, on board, not canvas, in private hands for years, Fred Olsen the shipping magnate, unseeable til now. I ring up to see what time they close. Half an hour ago and today was the last day of the viewing in London – it’s off to New York now. I let out a little Skrik. Bugger, bugger, bugger, I’ve been meaning to take a look for weeks. As Nietzsche would have said, you’ve got to be philosophical about it. I’m trying – but struggling. Soooo disappointed. I’ve seen most of the other versions, three in paint, my first time was in Oslo around 1987.
And then I got a second chance I never expected. I pictured this pastels version of Munch’s The Scream disappearing back into some mansion. But the new owner is evidently an enlightened person, s/he put it on public display at MoMA in New York (with which I heard s/he has a close connection). I was in NYC a few weeks ago talking at the Impact Media conference. The day after I went on a pathetically shallow quest in search of a particular watch made in New York. One of the few places you’re supposed to be able to get one is in the MoMA design shop – drew a blank there (out-of-date websites are so annoying, Nooka) – but the upside was I spotted the poster for The Scream exhibition.
Made a bee-line for it. It sat in the centre of a semi-darkened room. Surrounded by various works which shed some light on it, relatively minor, thoughtfully displayed. And here’s the thing…
He may well not actually be screaming. It’s called The Scream/Skrik. It’s got a man in the middle of it. Somehow an assumption had fixed itself in my mind that the man’s screaming. But first and foremost he’s covering his ears to block out a scream. A scream Munch heard in Nature that evening he went out walking along the edge of Oslo fjord and the sunset turned the sky blood red. His two friends were a bit ahead and he found himself alone in the face of Nature’s infinity.
I’ve experienced that myself but in a more benign way. I used to have an album by ABC called ‘Beauty Stab’ (used to because it was on cassette, a format well capable of prompting shrieks). It was a phrase that really resonnated for me. Those moments when you’re somewhere in Nature and it’s so beautiful it hurts. Occasionally I’ve had it though where it tips into an anxiety in the face of Nature’s depths – I had that once alone in a natural pool in Jamaica. For Munch it’s angst all the way on an overwhelming scale.
Skrik was one of six paintings making up what the artist dubbed the ‘Frieze of Life’. He was responding to (German dramatist) Lessing’s assertion in Laocoon that literature could tell a story over time where painting had to rely on a single moment. Munch wanted to create what the German’s called a ‘gesamptwerk’, a total work of art. The six paintings were displayed together and offered a coherent overview of life as a human being. Wanting to keep them together explains Munch’s willingness to reproduce his own paintings, avoiding breaking up the set.
On a tangent my limited Norwegian vocabulary is dominated by words like Skrik, Kvinne and the like, picked up from Munch’s titles. I was actually one of only two people in my year at Cambridge doing Norwegian (for me it was a third, subsidiary language which I was studying for all the wrong reasons and without seriousness, unlike the other student who quickly left me behind like Munch’s friends on that fateful walk).
So I battled my way through the crowd to get a close look at this 4th version of the iconic image, displayed like an icon in a fancy frame (Munch wasn’t keen on frames, or even on canvas, often painting on board or cheap materials) in a reverent penumbra, and drank it in, left above all with the impression of the mad swirls. Pencilled on to one oil version in the Oslo Museum is the sentence (in Norsk of course) “only a madman could have painted this”. To what extent this reflected his fear of madness in his family or was a bit of a pose cashing in on the Nordic rep for depressive nuttiness is difficult to say for sure.
Any way, I made my way literally round the corner to bump into another display of mad swirls. Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. (MoMA is like that, a too-rich mix of masterpiece after masterpiece, difficult to consume much of in a sitting.) What an illuminating face-off that was – Skrik vs Starry Night. Munch drew inspiration for his expressiveness from Vincent’s quickly growing impact in the wake of his death in 1890. But Vincent’s nightswirls are expressions not of madness and the chaotic expanse of Nature but of the raw energy of its infinity. Van Gogh’s image is the culmination of the 19th century in wonder and dynamism. Munch’s is the quintessence of the 20th century in its anxious horror.
The face at its focus is simplified, universalised in the way Klee stripped back his imagery to a powerful child-like lingua franca. In this way it is the head of Everyman, almost back to the skull beneath the skin, and that is the secret of its power – it is a kind of blank canvas, like Room 101, where we each impose our own meanings onto it. A scream at the horror of the holocaust. Despair (its original title) at the godless world post-Nietzsche. A cry for sanity as we pollute the waters, the countryside, the sky – tearing the earth to bloody pieces. A shriek at the advent of the A-bomb. A man screaming …who isn’t.
One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord – the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked. This became The Scream.
Munch’s diary – 22nd January 1892
The most striking thing for me about Un bar aux Folies-Bergère, the last masterpiece by Édouard Manet, painted in 1882 for exhibition at that year’s Paris Salon, are the green booties. What on earth are they doing up there? What kind of night club were they running? Some wild place that they’ve got trapeze artists flying about overhead and no-one gives a monkey’s – no-one is even bothering to look up at them. Circus Circus 90 years ahead of its time. That pair of bright green booties top left and the pink leggings – some kind of surreal joke on the part of M. Manet? Always gets a wry smile out of me. You can see this painting in the Courtauld Collection in London’s Somerset House, London.
I’m currently reading Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (appears on a lot of people’s Books That Changed My Life list so thought I’d give it a bash) which includes a scene of a visit to the Folies in post-Global Economic Meltdown Europe i.e. the early 30s . It’s in the context of a bit of a night crawl where a bunch of posh folk trawl the nighttown for thrills from the rough. The sense of classes colliding is strong in this picture, questions of power balance looming large.
Looking and not looking seems to be a preoccupation of Manet. The barmaid stares straight out at you the viewer – the last of a long line of such enigmatic stares. Olympia gives a challenging enigmatic stare in the eponymous painting [below]. As does that cheeky naked picnicker in Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe [below] (a quick tribute here to recently, dearly departed Malcolm [McLaren] who had fun with Manet’s woman in his Bow Wow Wow period). Manet gets his female protagonists to give as good as they get from staring males, no matter how much at a disadvantage they are (e.g. a bit light on the clothes front).
Now in this picture, Manet puts us, by a bit of mirror jiggery-pokery, in the position of said staring male. You, evidently, are that moustachioed, top-hatted, red-nosed chap reflected in the right-hand corner. Whether you’re more interested in the young barmaid or a bottle of Bass Pale Ale (spot that familiar logo, Britain’s first trademark) is debatable. But she is evidently giving him a run for his money on the gazing front, much like naughty, bold Olympia and the naked picnicker (though interestingly not the woman on The Balcony [below] who is altogether elsewhere – this barmaid’s stare is not quite as bold as picnic woman, not as insouciant as the odalisque, a tad more vulnerable and a little bit less there. That is where my fascination for Manet resides – it’s all in the eyes, eye and eye, and I and aye, what a rich mix of stories contained in the women’s eyes, looks and stares.)
Also in common (and common is the operative word – to reiterate, there’s a lot of class stuff going on around here) in common with Olympia is the fact that the barmaid is wearing a black ribbon. Why is Olympia wearing just the ribbon and the odd adornment – a bracelet, a hair ribbon, slippers? The answer can be found in the writing of poet Charles Baudelaire, a contemporary of Manet, just some ten years older – he had a conviction that Nature is much enhanced by Artifice – whether that artifice (Paradis Artificiels) is a ribbon or a reefer doesn’t much matter, it is the contrast which enlivens.
Interest in Manet should be livelying up in certain quarters with the announcement this week that one of the only two self-portraits of Manet (Self-Portrait With A Palette) was put up for sale this coming June, also staring in the mirror but without quite the enigma of E. Manet’s women…
Last Picture of the Month: Merry-Go-Round
Hooked up the other day, after a dog’s age, with designmeister Jason Loader (who has just set up on his own as Yeah Love). We made MindGym together way back when – a game about creative thinking. Jason has been kind (and patient) enough over the weekend to dig out some of the old design assets from a moribund machine…
There are some more here
All these 3D environments were designed by Jason Loader (at a time when they typically took over 18 hours to render, so a bit on the frustrating side if you didn’t get it right first time). MindGym was a concept I came up with at Melrose Film Productions in the wake of making a series of films about Creativity. I nicked the title from Lenin or one of those Ruskies, who used the term with reference to chess. So Jason and I started work on it, then the pair of us hooked up with NoHo Digital to realise a bastard creation of great energy. Rob Bevan (now at XPT) did the interface design and programming, skilfully combining this kind of rich 3D with elegant 2D inspired by You Don’t Know Jack. His creative partner Tim Wright led the writing team – him, Ben Miller and me – it was a comic script with serious stuff underlying the gags. I couldn’t help chuckling recently when I heard someone refer to Rob & Tim as the Jagger & Richards of new media. Talking of which, Nigel Harris did the music and sound design – excellent audio was one of our explicit creative goals, again inspired by YDK Jack. And talking of Jack the lads, Paul Canty (now of Preloaded) and Mike Saunders (Kew Digital), who were just starting out, were also among the production team. The studio was infested with red ants (possibly flesh-eating), but it didn’t distract us from the task at hand…