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Monthly Archives: December 2012

As a year of great art in the Capital comes to a close it’s a good time to look forward to the next four or five months, to see what the culture makers and curators of our City have in store for us. It might be hard to imagine that 2012 could be beaten, either in terms of imagination of scope, as we’ve been spoilt with such a selection of blockbusters and one-man-shows.

At the beginning of the year we had the close of the gorgeous Leonardo Da Vinci at the National Gallery, the fantastic David Hockney at the Royal Academy and the small but well formed Grayson Perry craft spectacular at the British Museum. One of the best shows of the year followed, the Lucian Freud retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery from February through until May (kick yourself if you missed this!). The Tate galleries gave us some intelligent solo shows in the form of Picasso, Hurst and Munch, as well as the delight of exploring the newly opened Tate Modern Tanks in the summer. Other events of note have been the gorgeous and epically proportioned design exhibitions at the V&A, Christian Louboutin at the Design Museum, Bronze at the RA, Shakespeare at the BM and Tracey Emin at the Haywood Gallery. And that’s just some of the larger Nationals, throw into the mix all of the summer events, displays and shows at the time of the Olympics, on top of the usual art shows and commercial exhibitions and it’s hard to argue that it’s been anything but a stunning year for the visual arts in London.

So, what should you make time for in the new year? Mark out your calendar now for Valentino: Master of Couture if you haven’t already seen it, on show at Somerset House until 3rd March. Grab yourself a slice of the “essence of femininity….and glamour”, look at the making of this fashion master and then sample a large array of his work in the form of beautifully exquisite dresses. If you’re more archaeologically than sartorially minded you might want to book your ticket for the BM’s Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind, which opens on 7th February. This promises to be as studiously meticulous and richly informative as their previous exhibitions.

Also plan to head to the NPG in the first quarter of the year, they will have Man Ray Portraits and the lesser heralded (but bound to be unique and sympathetically framed) George Catlin: American Indian Portraits on offer. Another of the usual suspects, the RA, has the first retrospective of Edouard Manet’s work from 26th January, which you might want to factor in. Straight into the new year you’ll also have opportunity to squeeze in Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War, Seduced by Art and Hollywood Costumes which I’ve reviewed over the past couple of months, soon to close at their respective galleries.

Looking further ahead, British Drawings: 1600 to the Present Day opening on 3rd October at the V&A is my tip for one of the not-to-miss smaller displays this year. I’d also keep an eye on the Wellcome Collection and White Cube websites, to keep track of what they have upcoming as 2013 progresses. Happy gallery visiting, and I’ll see you again next year!

Valentino at Somerset House promises to be foxy, frothy and glamorous. Don't miss it! On display until 3rd March.

Valentino at Somerset House promises to be foxy, frothy and glamorous. Don’t miss it! On display until 3rd March.

http://www.somersethouse.org.uk/visual-arts/valentino

http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/ice_age_art.aspx

http://www.npg.org.uk//whatson/man-ray-portraits/exhibition.php

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/exhibitions/2013/george-catlin-american-indian-portraits.php

http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/manet/

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Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin: A Transatlantic dialogue

You may not be familiar with the Ben Uri art museum, a small, slightly confused gallery located in the heart of St John’s Wood. They have one key thing working in their favour, stacked against the dismal, tiny physical space they occupy and the messy messages given out by their website. Their exhibition programme is lively and active, the curatorial team punch above their weight with their borrowing pitched towards national galleries and large name artists. With a mediocre collection (search online – proof that collections based largely upon the religious beliefs of the artist are limiting and populated by weak works), this programme is a lifeline.

The current display has four women to its name, but the main player is Judy Chicago. Readers may be familiar with Chicago’s 1970s work The Dinner Party, an iconic standout piece of feminist art from that era. In contemporary consciousness she has been overshadowed by contemporaries such as Marina Abramović, Yoko Ono, Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Nancy Spero, more recently Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and perhaps Sophie Calle. The Ben Uri exhibition positions Chicago alongside Bourgeois, Emin and Helen Chadwick, as a collective pantheon of feminist art, imagining a “transatlantic dialogue”. Chicago worked with the gallery in curating the show, had strong creative input and flew into London especially for the opening. From the split of the works on show it is clear that this is a one woman show, with some side acts for contextualisation. The implied suggestion is that the three other artists share some sort of link, either ideological or inspirational, with Chicago and her work. I find this misleading.

Tracey Emin, People Like You Need to Fuck People Like Me (2007)

Tracey Emin, People Like You Need to Fuck People Like Me (2007)

The main body of Chicago’s work is introspective, heavy on naked self-portraiture, female angst and difficulties arising from her marriage. A series of ink drawings, Autobiography of a Year 3, is crudely rendered and dripping with self-loathing, body image issues and despair at aging. You might think the similarities are striking between this series and some of Tracey’s work, particularly her scratchy monoprints. I wouldn’t jump to an immediate conclusion, however. Whilst Emin’s work speaks of loneliness, sexual promiscuity, betrayal and the body, it holds a hope; it has a silver lining of strength and female resilience. You feel that you are peering directly into her interior world, a unique childlike and often nightmarish place. Her work relies heavy on the relationships with those around her, her family, the men she has slept with, the men she has loved, her unborn baby. Chicago’s work, especially in tandem, feels very of a certain time and place, it’s feminism with a capital ‘F’, politicised and bubbling with anger and a desire for change. Emin derives from a post-modernist, post-Feminist world, the hope her work holds is for herself and the fact that she is a survivor, any belief in the power of political change redundant and defunct. I wonder how she feels about her work being staged in such a show.

Judy Chicago, Autobiography of a Year 133 (1993-4)

Judy Chicago, Autobiography of a Year 133 (1993-4)

Curated by Rachel Silman and Judy Chicago. On display until 10th March 2013.

http://www.benuri.org.uk/public/?event-details

Seduced by Art at the National Gallery

A couple of weeks ago I critiqued Brian Sewell’s tirade against the Seduced show, which was actually a damnation of photography as art. After making a visit to look for myself, I have to say I agree with some of his assessment. Like Sewell, I have some problems with the NG’s proposition that this exhibition “argues” that early and modern photographers were influenced by the Old Masters. Is it possible to have an argument which nobody questions? One that’s so simple, almost akin to “Joe Bloggs argues that grass is green”? Surely influence is a given, and what we really see unfolding as we walk through the themed rooms in the exhibition is that, more obviously, artists return to the same subject matter again and again regardless of medium.

The exhibition is split into six rooms: Setting the Scene, Portraits, the Figure, Tableaux, Still Life and Landscape. The opening is strong. We are accustomed to glossing over the most blatant and misogynistic of violence in old painted masterpieces, instead concentrating on the beautiful brushwork and skill of the artists. Placing such works next to huge blown up interior scenes, where we know all too well to read between the lines of a juxtaposition of rumpled silk against a filthy setting, or an artfully destroyed room, means we are forced to recognise and confront the violence. It surrounds in the first room, we recognise latent aggression in scene photographs, we’ve been taught all too well by forensic imagery. The CSI generation can interpret sexually motivated brutality in a half second when confronted with the work of Tom Hunter, and this knowledge highlights what we know to exist in the Delacroix nearby.

Eugène Delacroix, Death of Sardanapalus (1827), oil on canvas.

Eugène Delacroix, Death of Sardanapalus (1827), oil on canvas.

In the portraiture section Martin Parr’s Signs of the Times, England and Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews sit next to each other superbly. Anybody who is familiar with both works could, in their own mind, link the two together thematically, but it’s gratifying to see them hung side by side in the flesh. What this room speaks of most clearly is privilege, of wealth, beauty or youth, and those privileged individuals revelling in their vanity, in displaying their wares. Further rooms are an excuse to flaunt naked imagery (old fashioned pornography, necessary?) or are used to show how Sam Taylor Wood’s video of decay was influenced by Vanitas paintings. Not too taxing on the grey cells.

There isn’t much in the way of groundbreaking dialogue in the interpretation. A favourite: “Still life is the most widely seen photographic subject today, found everywhere from advertisements to packets of frozen food.” Astounding. Discounting the fact that people probably populate photographs more frequently than still life, this sentence is so obvious it doesn’t need saying. The NG crowd are an intelligent bunch, surely they understand that still life is effectively stuff, and stuff is the saleable, desirable commodity in a consumerist society (again, omitting people). In fact, when you look at the broad breakdown of topics in this exhibition, you have sex, violence, death, nakedness, war, wealth and desire. Pretty average, universal artist themes; these must be represented in almost every gallery in the world, contemporary or historic.

Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet, The Battle of Jemappes (1821), oil on canvas

Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet, The Battle of Jemappes (1821), oil on canvas

One thing I would say, this exhibition highlighted those areas in which painting or photography provide more curiosity, where their hidden strengths might lay. On the subject of war, where we have been so saturated with imagery over the past sixty years, the Vernet rendering of the Battle of Jemappes looks fresh and still has the ability to take your breath. In stark contrast, Delahayes’ US Bombing of Taliban Positions looks tired and (excusing the language) done to death. The aforementioned naked photographs, the ‘idealised female form’ are as familiar to us as photographs of our own family, though not as welcome. Painterly representations of the naked body, however, always seem that more stunning, removed from the ordinary by the act of the brush. In the still life section, despite the patronising statement declaring otherwise, the photographs look most unusual to us, draw us in. Ori Gersht’s blown up flowers are the most arresting, because of their uniqueness. I suspect this exhibition brought his work into the consciousness of a whole new demographic.

On reflection, Seduced by Art is a strong display when speaking of progression, and of those human themes which all of us dwell on, the themes that define our lives. It’s the dressing up I didn’t like. If the National Gallery wants to create glossy, lovely exhibitions with nice selections of imagery, they are well within their rights to do so. The curators don’t always have to be scholarly; cultured people like to be spoon fed gorgeousness sometimes too. But, please, in these instances ditch the ludicrous theories.

Ori Gersht, detail from Blow Up: Untitled 5 (2007)

Ori Gersht, detail from Blow Up: Untitled 5 (2007)

 

On display until 20th January 2013.

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/seduced-by-art-photography-past-and-present