Saturday, November 23rd 2013
As the temperature continues to slide downwards into a wintery chill, it brings with it a disinclination to expose ourselves to long periods out of doors. Indoor activities seem more attractive and among these are visits to museums and art galleries. Today, we started with the Saatchi Gallery and went on from there to the Tate Britain. Both of these galleries are wonderful places in which to spend a few hours enjoying the art works. Admission to both is free and both allow you to take photographs. While the Tate Britain seeks to provide a panorama of art in Britain from 1500 to the present day, the Saatchi is passionately modern, showing the works of contemporary artists, many of whom are as yet little known. While the Tate Britain’s stock is largely fixed, the Saatchi has a continual programme of new works and exhibitions.
On our first visit to the Saatchi, Tigger, knowing my opinions of much modern art, confidently predicted that I would hate it. Was she right? Startled, I certainly was. Bemused and, yes, even shocked by some of the exhibits. But I didn’t hate it, and now the Saatchi is one of my favourite galleries. It seems to be a lot of people’s favourite gallery, to judge from the numbers of visitors, among whom, I am glad to see, are often parents bringing their children.
While the Saatchi exhibits every imaginable type of art (and a few I would never have imagined had I not seen them here!) today quickly turned into a sculpture day, firstly because it was sculpture that I particularly noticed at the Saatchi and, later, when I encountered a familiar style in the Tate Britain. When I say “sculpture”, I use the word loosely to cover “objects” or “installations” or “arrangements” – solid forms that you can walk around as opposed to flat images in a frame. It is necessary to be so broad because the exhibits at the Saatchi often defy the traditional categories so that the forms are often novel.
James Balmforth specializes in “self-defeating monuments”, like this poor old griffin, supposedly a symbol of nobility and majesty, now with a wing broken off, and coated in a thick layer of postbox-red plastic that, rather than a livery of royal scarlet as worn by the griffins of the City of London, seems to confine and mummify it. Yet, somehow, a whiff of its ancient glory still seems to cling to it…
The Saatchi Gallery has a grown-up policy of not fencing off or otherwise protecting the works on display. You are asked not to touch or interfere with them but you may otherwise go as close to them as you wish and look at them from all angles. This is particularly important when it comes to sculpture and installations which are, after all, three-dimensional and deserve to be seen from all sides.
Crush is a cast of the artist’s own body. Here it is flattened as though literally crushed, but the title can refer to that other sort of crush, unrequited love. Ursuta’s works combine experiences of pain and sorrow interlaced with black humour.
Despite the title, Vandal Lust, this work seems to portray the aftermath of an escape bid that has gone wrong. Was the artist thinking of people who tried by various ingenious means to escape from partitioned East Berlin or is it a purely metaphorical escape? Again, an almost cartoonish black humour is in evidence. The piece shows a trebuchet – a medieval artillery catapult, and a person who has sought to use it to fling herself to freedom but has hit a solid wall instead, with fatal consequences.
This small and delicate piece of work seems in some ways paradoxical. Entitled The Misanthrope, it represents an old man with finely rendered hands and features, seemingly scurrying along, withdrawn and wishing not to be noticed, and yet wearing flamboyantly colourful robes, certain to attract notice if not envy. Is this a reference to the hippies and the “flower children” of yesteryear? Or perhaps merely an eccentric recluse who likes bright clothing? Either way, the artist shows none of the denigration that usually attaches to misanthropes and his figure has an almost spiritual aura.
There were, of course, “flat images” on show, both paintings and photographs. Below are samples from two artists whose work attracted my attention. As an aside, I am not keen of photographing paintings and other “flat images”. For one thing, the lighting in galleries often causes unpleasant reflections which cannot be avoided and for another it somehow seems pointless making an image of an image, reminiscent of that blight of office life, the photocopy of the photocopy. There is only one way to photograph a painting or photograph and all such photos will be the same, though variant in quality. With sculpture, it is different. You can take endlessly many photos of a sculpture and all will be different and yet, tantalisingly, no matter how many you take, you will never capture an impression of the work as a whole. The camera, unlike the eye, lacks a brain to fuse all the different views into a single experience. Yet this very impossibility of achieving perfection incites us to go on trying…
Photographer Tanyth Berkeley is one of the artists contributing to the exhibition Body Language. We are told that this extraordinary series of portraits takes as its subjects ordinary people who agreed to be photographed in poses of their choosing. The results range from the picturesque, through the bizarre to the erotic. Berkeley seems to have the ability to draw out people’s souls and make them manifest in their portraits. There is also irony and humour but, above all, a refreshing directness and honesty.
The bizarre appears again in the collection by Dennis Tarasov entitled Essence. This consists of 40 C-prints of gravestones in Yekaterinburg (Russia) and Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine). What is peculiar about these gravestones is that they all have engraved on them images derived from photographs of the deceased, clearly posed for this purpose while they were still alive. The resultant portraits and scenes show the dear departed as they wished to be thought of and remembered, not only in their physical appearance but often accompanied by possessions such as motor cars of which they were fond or proud. This is self-advertisement projected into the future, but though we may smirk condescendingly at its naivety, I think there is also something touching and perhaps rather sad about it.
We now moved to the Tate Britain, another of my favourite galleries. This gallery, unlike the Saatchi, performs a bag check. Not that I object to this, because works of art have more than once been attacked by idiots with some political or personal axe to grind. If a bag search, enables the gallery to display the art works in an accessible manner and not behind barriers and bullet-proof glass, then I am all for it. The gallery is laid out in time sequence, with the date range of the works in each room set in the floor in the doorway. While this is a useful arrangement, we found it was not easy to follow the timeline without a map. Another way of enjoying the art is the one we chose, namely to wander more or less at random, paying attention to whatever spoke to us. By now in sculpture-oriented mode, I noticed the above work, Hylas Surprised by the Naiads by John Gibson (1790-1866).
According to Ovid, Hylas was the son of Hercules, who was kidnapped by nymphs and never found. The sculpture portrays the moment when Hylas, come to take water from the river, is discovered by naiads and by them gently but firmly restrained against escape. What happens subsequently is left to our imagination. Gibson was originally a carpenter but went to Italy to learn to be a sculptor and thereafter spent most of his life there. This sculpture, first exhibited in 1837, is by many considered his finest work.
At first sight also in Classical vein, this work on closer examination has a more modern look to it. It was made around 1880 by the Symbolist painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts (1817-1904). According to Ovid, Daphne was pursued by the sun god Apollo and saved by being transformed into a laurel tree – hence the laurel branch running around her body, suggesting the moment of transformation. The squarish cut of the features is a simplification that remind me of wood cuts and is in tune with the mythical and symbolic mood of the work.
I am no expert in art in general or sculpture in particular but as soon as I saw this work, I knew beyond a doubt who the sculptor must be. I had been struck by another of his works recently when, on a trip to Birmingham (see A library in Birmingham), we visited the art gallery and saw his Lucifer (see here and here). It turns out that Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) is well represented in the Tate Britain. The above work, done in 1926, is entitled The Visitation and was supposed to be one of a pair though its companion piece was never completed. It refers to the visit of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth to inform her of the forthcoming birth of Jesus and Epstein intended it to express profound humility. I am not sure that that is the emotion that comes through to me but it is certainly a powerful work.
Epstein also created a number of portrait busts of famous people, including Albert Einstein, Ernest Bevin and Jacob Kramer. This one portrays a rather snooty-looking Iris Beerbohm Tree, actress and poet. What the shiny top is, I do not know. Is it a fanciful representation of the lady’s hair? Or a headdress? I had some fun trying to photograph the bust which is protected inside a glass case. To avoid reflections, I placed the camera directly in contact with the glass and then saw that I was reflected in the mirror-like head-piece, even if I moved as far as I could to one side. The only way to do it was to crouch down, holding the camera above the level of my head. I no doubt presented the odd picture of someone doing obeisance to the bust! Incidentally, Iris Tree was also the subject of a well known painting by Modigliani.
After the previous strongly styled but reassuringly representational pieces, what do we make of this alien-looking figure whose vaguely humanoid form renders it all the more alarming? Epstein seems to have acquired an “ardour” for modern machinery and between 1913 and 1915, he created a work called Rock Drill, consisting of a real mining drill, topped with a robot-like figure. However, the horrors of the First World War with its engines of destruction disillusioned him and he dismantled the work. Epstein kept the robot form, sliced it in half, and refigured it as Torso in Metal. His own explanation reads as follows: “My ardour for machinery (short-lived) expended itself upon the purchase of an actual drill, second-hand, and upon it I made and mounted a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed sinister figure of to-day and to-morrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into.”
This sculpture, carved with epic massiveness, encapsulates a story from the Book of Genesis, concerning the all-night struggle between Jacob and a figure of mythic power and significance who is never named but is hinted to be God himself. The story (Genesis 32:22-32) simply states “And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day”, but commentators have often described Jacob’s opponent as an angel. In the Biblical account, Jacob acquits himself well, despite having his hip put out of joint. At the end of the conflict, the opponent prepares to depart but Jacob demands a blessing. Here, we perhaps see that moment as the angel supports Jacob who looks upwards in despair and exhaustion. Notice how the angel’s hands are planted firmly on Jacob’s back, while Jacob’s arms hang limply, as though he would fall to the ground but for the other’s support. The struggle has come to a moment of quietude in the static form of the mutually clasped bodies though the free flowing hair of the angel still suggests vitality and movement. (If you want to read the Biblical account, there is a handy version here.)
As we were leaving the Tate Britain, I was captivated by the above dramatic scene of a sinister and powerful figure apparently bearing down menacingly upon a crowd of people unaware of the danger. Behind you!
Of course, the figure was a harmless piece of sculpture, unable to move. It by Michael Sandle and is entitled Der Trommler (The Drummer). It certainly does look powerful and dangerous, though.
As usual, our tour of the galleries had turned up some old friends and some pieces we had not seen before – a perfect mix.