DLA Piper Series: Constellations

I recently had the chance to go to one of the Tate’s regional outposts in Liverpool. I had not been to Liverpool before but I had high expectations since it was crowned the European Capital of Culture in 2007. The museum is neatly tucked into the carefully renovated Albert Docks and so is surrounded by views of the Merseyside and the boats that fill it. Albert Docks is an area I would definitely recommend visiting if you are in Liverpool even if you are not planning on visiting the Tate Liverpool. However, if you do have time the museum is one of Liverpool’s highlights which should not be missed.

Unfortunately I did not have an unlimited amount of time to spend in the Tate Liverpool and so had to be selective about the exhibitions that I choose. My first choice was a little unlucky as it was a black and white photogram exhibition by György Kepes which did not strike me as particularly unusual or interesting. The limitations of the photogram medium meant that the images remained fairly simple and abstract. However, once I left this room and took the stairs to the next floor I experienced a much more thought-provoking exhibition. The DLA Piper Series: Constellations explores how different types of art can relate to each other across movements and periods. A ‘constellation’ of pieces is drawn on the wall with a central piece, such as Matisse or Pollock, serving as a stimulus and an anchor for the surrounding artworks. Artists have always undeniably been influences by work that has come before them and those that they work with or react against but I still found it fascinating to trace how a particular idea or philosophy was explored and tested. The challenges of representation which the Cubists tackled were juxtaposed with alternative attempts to reinterpret the trope of still life. Although artists have painted still life scenes for centuries the inventiveness of the images on show demonstrated that art can continue to refer to itself while creating something completely new.

A painting which made a particular impression on me was Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s painting of his lover Sophie Brzeska. It felt so modern and fresh although it was painted over 100 years ago in 1913. The careful detail contrasts with the unusual colouring of the face and simple background to ensure the viewer is left wondering more about the woman in the picture. It is not a typical portrait but I felt that it clearly conveys the strong personality which Sophie Brzeska must have had even as she looks away from the painter. This simply reassessment of how to paint a portrait felt much more understated than the overtly experimental Cubist paintings surrounding it but quietly incorporated the influence of the modern which still acknowledging the strengths of the traditional style.

Although some might argue that the constellations create a simplified and linear narrative of how artistic styles have developed I found the contextual placement of the paintings made me question the idea of a progression in art. Artwork which was finished only years apart from one another could look as alien as possible when compared with its contemporary. However, this did not create an impression of ‘right’ art and ‘wrong’ art but merely interpretations on themes which will continue to develop and expand. I plan to go back to the Tate Liverpool so that I can explore the constellations further and question the connections made in other parts of the gallery – I’m looking forward to it!


Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends

The peculiarity of John Singer Sargent’s upbringing, as an American born in Florence, allowed him to present a unique insight on both American and European culture during the 19th century. The current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery demonstrates not only this insight but also the skill and position in society that Sargent used to depict it. He quickly rose to fame due to the controversial painting of Madame X, which was sadly not included in the exhibition, and despite the notoriety swiftly became the portraitist of choice for high society. This allowed him to paint the great and the good with relatively security as his reputation would no longer be destroyed with a brush stroke. Nevertheless he still took great pride in his work, once repainting an entire head when he heard the sitter was disappointed with the original result.

Famous faces crowd the walls and each suggests a personality bubbling beneath the oil paint surface. I was fascinated to learn of Sargent’s friendship with Monet, who he painted with his wife over several years and kept one of these paintings in his studio throughout his life. When painting friends Sargent could be more experimental and this often shows through in the simplicity of his palette and the more unusual composition or setting of his subjects. This is especially evident in his paintings of Robert Louis Stevenson, which catch the writer as he strides across a room or sprawls in a chair. He is not treated with reverence as a writer but more interestingly is shown as a man who is married and part of a household. Apparently Stevenson’s wife thought when only the hand in one of the paintings was finished that it was already the best portrait that had been done of her husband.

I particularly enjoyed the paintings of Ellen Terry as I felt they captured her formidable character better than any photographs I have seen of her before. They also portrayed her as an actor of great skill, terrifying all around her as Lady Macbeth, which was unusual for a time which often saw actresses as aberrations or amateurs. I almost felt that I could see Terry mid speech as she claws her way to Scottish power. The detail on this particular painting was very intricate, with gold twisted into her long hair and the feathers glistening on her dress so it was also interesting as a depiction of Victorian stagecraft as well as Terry’s personality.

Unfortunately this exhibition is almost over and is only open until the 25th of May but I would still recommend it if you do get the chance to go!

What is Luxury?

Luxury is a nebulous concept which is often assumed to be straight forward; piles of gold jewellery, high thread count sheets and caviar. However, ‘What is Luxury?’, the current exhibition at the V&A, demonstrates that this should not be taken for granted. The status of luxury items can change or even be lost across time and continents as resources grow scarce and priorities change. The exhibition is split into two sections to explore this idea, with half focusing on luxurious tastes of the past while the second half suggests what might become a luxury as our world continues to develop and change. This allowed parallels to be drawn between ideas of craftsmanship throughout the ages and the motivations behind each piece. Earlier examples, such as an intricate chasuble and a golden crown, were often inspired by religious devotion and therefore were designed with a purpose even though they appear frivolous. However, later examples focused more on how an object can be made luxurious and the effect that this has on its value. For example, Nora Folk creates necklaces from nylon which recreate the lightness of soapy bubbles but which can be worn outside of the bathroom while open backed watches reveal their mechanisms to show how precision can be beautiful.

I was surprised to find that I particularly enjoyed the speculative section of the exhibition. It playfully questions how our concepts of luxury will continue to be formed by the scarcity of resources, ranging from oil and minerals to privacy and time. Aram Mooradian explores the effect of the gold mining industry on Australia’s natural and cultural heritage and suggests that in future gold will be used to store memories, such as in bullets, tooth fillings and lockets, just as it is currently used throughout electronic devices. This re-interpretation of a current luxurious substance fascinated me and I almost want to believe that it is real so that I can have my own gold memory player. It also offered a much more positive stance on the future than the DNA vending machine created by Gabriel Barcia-Colombo which commercialised access to healthcare. However, other ideas were not as believable and so appeared ridiculous in comparison, as elaborate stories were concocted around mining in space and the significance of stoppered glassware. This did not necessarily detract from the overall narrative but did serve as a reminder that an object’s status as a luxury is not automatic but depends on acceptance by society.

Overall, the exhibition illustrates that luxury relies as much on a sympathetic audience who knows about the background of an object as it does on outward displays of expense and value. Without an awareness of the difficulty of applying lacquer the colourful tumblers exhibited would appear to be indistinguishable from those on sale in any supermarket and so would be treated accordingly. Luxury cannot exist outside of society, even as it appears to rise above it. The exhibition continues until 27th September and is completely free! Now I just have to save up my money to afford some of the exhibits…

Frances Ha (2012)

Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach, follows the life of a dancer who watches as her disorganised life unravels around her and is unable to see how she will ever be able to have a successful future. At the start of the film she breaks up with her boyfriend before promptly also falling out with her best friend and house mate, Sophie. Nevertheless, Frances, played excellently by Greta Gerwig who also wrote the script, is enthusiastic throughout her problems and is always optimistic that a solution will soon appear. I found her a fascinating character as she is aware of her flaws but she continues to try and support herself as a dancer in New York, even when faced with the realities of a non-existent income and rent. This compares favourably with many of the other characters she encounters who are revealed to be hypocritical or narrow minded, although they are never irredeemable. This subtle and sympathetic portrayal of the cast, as well as Frances’ bumbling manner, ensures that the tone remains comic rather than mocking. Although the use of black and white rather than colour might suggest the film will be self consciously quirky I was surprised by how simple the style remained. It allows Baumbach to focus on the everyday details of Frances’ life, such as the small bedrooms and grey days that she must face, and also demonstrate how she flourishes when with other people.

The film depicts accurately how a relationship can slowly deteriorate without either person noticing until it is damaged and undeniable. Although Frances is continually surrounded by other people throughout the film she is lost without Sophie, as she fails to replicate the ease of understanding they had. She continues to call Sophie her best friend even when they do not speak for months and this also forces her to re-evaluate her own identity as she realises how much she depends on Sophie as a counterpoint for her own experiences. Their lives cannot be so intertwined again and Frances must learn to depend on herself and to enjoy doing so. However, neither Frances nor Sophie is willing to give up on each other completely and they must learn how to appreciate the different people that they have become.

Frances Ha manages to be a film about loneliness as well as relationships and highlights the ease with which people can get lost when trying to follow their dream. I have meant to watch this film for a long time and I wish I had made time to see it before – it is bitter-sweet, poignant and yet also a comedy.

Magnificent Obsessions

The Magnificent Obsessions exhibition at the Barbican is a curious selection of objects which superficially appear to have nothing in common. Old Japanese woodcuts are in the same room as a giant novelty horse statue whilst other rooms contain silk scarves, taxidermy and cookie jars. However, one similarity that the exhibition focuses on is their status as collectibles by demonstrating how artists have carefully chosen the objects to be part of a larger grouping. Every object has a certain value to its collector and visitors are challenged to see them in the same light.There is no set path around the exhibits and so the narrative of collecting is interestingly uncertain. Damian Hirst collects to ‘remind himself of the brevity of life’ while others curated objects in their lives to celebrate the everyday. I particularly enjoyed the selection of Russian space dog memorabilia by Martin Parr as they seemed so bizarre but also conventional as all the dogs looked proudly out towards space. Apparently at the height of the Space Race these dogs were treated as national heroes, which included branded merchandise, as their sacrifices were said to help further Russia’s scientific efforts. The memorabilia also felt at odds with his other collection of vintage postcards from towns across Britain but these two very separate halves of his collection clearly both appealed to Parr. The urge to collect as presented in the exhibition defies easy explanation, even from artists who present their collections so deliberately.

One of the main reasons that I particularly wanted to see this exhibition was because a selection of Edmund de Waal’s Japanese netsuke is on show. Several years ago I read his book The Hare with the Amber Eyes and I have often thought about it since. It tells the tale of how his family inheritance of tiny carved curiosities survived when his relatives lost everything else due to the anti-Semitic persecution across Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. The amber eyed hare itself was placed centre stage and I was fascinated at how detailed it was, with one paw hesitantly lifted as if about to turn and scamper off after seeing a human. The other netsuke also had this suggestion of movement and individual characteristics, as they reach and turn continuously, making me feel like I was looking at a miniature and fantastical population in the glass cabinet.

I’ve only mentioned a small selection of the objects which can be seen, as the exhibition is so eclectic it is impossible to summarise! There is something to surprise everyone, such as Andy Warhol’s collection of cookie jars, and it will make you re-examine household objects which you have never previously given a second glance. The exhibition ends on 25th May and if you sign up as a Young Barbican member the tickets are half price!

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

When I read the opening pages of H is for Hawk I quickly realised that the book would not be what I had been expecting. Following the sudden death of her father, Helen Macdonald was seized by the desire to train a goshawk, the most difficult bird of prey, and the book charts the developing relationship she has with Mabel, the bird she eventually chooses. I had originally thought the narrative would focus on her relationship with her father but instead layers of emotions are interspersed with falconry facts, a biography of T. H. White and musings on history. No single facet of the book is dominant and so a careful balance is created which draws the reader in even as it holds them at a distance. Macdonald does not try to explain why she reacted as she did which prevents any cloying morals from being patronisingly explained. Nevertheless, the goshawk both saves and overwhelms her as she chooses to retreat further into the wildness discovered when she begins to interpret the world as Mabel does.

I was surprised that I found the sections of H is for Hawk which dramatise T.H. White’s struggle to tame a goshawk more painful to read that the description of Macdonald’s own nervous breakdown. I think this is because they enable her to explore her own fears about failing to train Mabel whilst also acknowledging that White was completely unprepared and naive when training his own bird, Gos. He was motivated by a belief that it would act as a rite of passage to prove his manliness and self-sufficiency. However, Macdonald examines his attempts with the eyes of an experienced falconer and is distressed by how he unknowingly mistreats Gos, first through overfeeding and then by confusing training.

I can understand how the book has won so many prizes, it is neither self-important nor insular, as Macdonald acknowledges her failings but refuses to let self pity overcome her while also describing new worlds for her readers. I often found myself sympathising even when she turned her back on an obvious offer of help as she was clearly profoundly affected by her father’s death and the new escape which nature offered her was understandably tempting. The book has also tempted me to reread The Sword in the Stone as I am sure that the birds of prey which feature will now hold an additional claim on my interest as I will see the echo of White’s struggle with falconry.

Richard Diebenkorn

Art is often divided into the supposedly diametrically opposed styles of abstract and figurative, each with a group of supporters who extol the superiorities of each approach. However, the current exhibition at the RA of Richard Diebenkorn’s work demonstrates how arbitrary this opposition is. Although Diebenkorn is less well known in the UK he is revered in America and this success allowed him to experiment and bounce between abstractive and figurative painting throughout his career. Therefore, while the first room in the exhibition contains abstract, colourful paintings from the his work in the 1950s, the next room is full of careful portraits and detailed landscapes which Diebenkorn painted for over a decade. This complete shift shocked the audience which the abstract paintings had initially attracted, especially since figurative painting was particularly unpopular when Diebenkorn made this change. Nevertheless it soon became clear that his new style of painting created pieces just as skilled as those which he had produced before. During the late 1960s Diebenkorn returned again to painting abstraction, although the work he created then was of a much more considered and restrained nature than of those which made him famous.

As the exhibition only consisted of three rooms, it was easy to go round again and I was surprised by how consistent the works suddenly appeared despite the dramatic changes in style. The two styles complimented each other and it was easy to understand how Diebenkorn could switch between them without a feeling of rebellion. He did not commit himself to the ideals of either the abstract of the figurative movement completely which prevented any feeling of contradiction developing when comparing pieces from across his career. Instead he had his own set of ten rules which transcended fashions and contemporary opinion and Diebenkorn followed them aiming to achieve ‘rightness’ in each painting. Diebenkorn’s figurative work would include panels of colour which created an unworldly street scene while his abstract paintings celebrated the variety of colour involved. I also particularly liked his use of less traditional media, such as a ball point pen portrait or cigar box lids as miniature versions of his huge ‘Ocean Park’ series. They suggested the personality of a man who did not take himself too seriously and who was always willing to adapt his surroundings to an artistic purpose.

The exhibition is open at the Royal Academy until 7th of June and is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.