Sunday, May 11th 2014
Today, as usual, we did the weekly shopping at the supermarket and then looked around for a leisurely activity for the afternoon. For this we chose the Tate Britain. There was a special exhibition running, entitled Ruin Lust, but it didn’t attract us and we preferred to wander around the main collection looking at whatever caught our fancy. What follows is a disorganized selection from among the items I saw.
Admission to the permanent collection is free (though they suggest a donation of £4) and photography is permitted.
There were a number of paintings by Alan Davie on display as part of the series BP Spotlights. I think I would put this artist in the “interesting” category, meaning that while the works do not speak to me directly, I suspect there something in them that I haven’t cottoned onto yet. The label accompanying this one says “The series reflects Davie’s idea of a place where all religions and cultures can coexist”. We can dream, I suppose.
This work apparently shows Davie taking off in a new direction after living and working on St Lucia in the Caribbean. Strangely enough, I quite like it though probably not for the reasons the artist intended. There’s more on it here.
I straightaway recognized this as a painting by Turner. I am not an uncritical fan of this artist but I like this one. It was first exhibited in 1831.
Nearby is Turner’s Field of Waterloo, showing the aftermath of that famous battle. It was first shown in 1818, and was painted after the artist had visited the battlefield the previous year and spent time studying the uniforms and insignia of the combatants. Turner is known for his artistic and scientific interest in and study of the properties of light. Here, the moonlight, breaking through a dark layer of ominous cloud, acts like a spotlight, illuminating a heap of corpses jumbled together and the people moving among them, looking for relatives or friends.
Turner’s approach is to show the dismal aspects of war in contrast to the glorification of it and hero worship of the Duke of Wellington that were more usual at the time. It is not “realistic” and the scene has been manipulated to bring out the themes Turner wants to express but it is telling for all that and we can be drawn into it as though into a real scene.
John Constable remains one of Britain’s favourite artists and his works are much copied and reproduced. For this reason, there is a danger that, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, their very popularity renders them over familiar so that we have to make an effort to look at them and appreciate them at their true worth. The artist was painting at a time of increasing urbanization and industrialization when the nostalgia arising from feelings that the countryside and the old ways of life were fast disappearing made such pictures popular. It would be easy for a less competent artist to slip into exaggeration and kitsch but Constable’s paintings are resolutely naturalistic and well observed.
This is one of the most famous of the paintings to emerge from the Victorian era, which is all the more remarkable in that the artist is a woman, Emily Osborn. It is a fine work, in my opinion, beautifully conceived and finished. The theme is a familiar one of the artist who was concerned with the lot of widows and single women who had a struggle to survive in a harsh world. The subtitle of the painting is “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city. etc” – Proverbs x 15 and two of those “rich men” are visible to the left of the picture, comparing the young woman with the female figure in the print held by one of them. The woman – little more than a girl, really – stands with downcast eyes awaiting the decision of the art dealer who is perusing the painting – her own work – that she has handed to him in the hope of selling it. Her young brother stands beside her, holding a portfolio under his arm. How often has the artist witnessed such scenes and, indeed, has she not herself stood with downcast eyes awaiting judgement like her subject?
And now, on to the “big stuff”mentioned in the title. I have seen some big exhibits in art galleries but rarely anything on the scale of these pieces. So big are they that in some cases I could not photograph them whole because of their size in the close confines of the gallery. The artist is Phyllida Barlow, who specializes in large installations and has produced these for this year’s Tate Britain Commission1.
This is one of the smaller pieces but shows in microcosm – if something so large can be a microcosm – the typical features of the installations. I say “installations” (plural) though I am not sure whether the structures are separate works or form all together one massive installation, as suggested by the fact that they are grouped under a single name, dock. Made of scrap and spare materials of various kinds, the structures, some as tall as a three-storey house, look improvised, as though someone has built them up haphazardly as they went. How stable are they? Were they designed in detail or just thrown together? Are they in danger of collapsing on the viewer? I have no idea.
There is some sort of an explanation of Phyllida Barlow’s work here but such descriptions are wont to raise more questions than they answer – though this is not necessarily a bad thing. One is tempted to employ the over-worked f-word in connection with these works: fun. So many artistic works these days claim to be done in fun or playfulness, but it is hard to see these huge installations as playful. They look spontaneous, ad hoc and almost accidental but surely they cannot be so. Peering into the fathomless complexity of their structures, you can only wonder.
Returning to a more conventional size, here is a painting by Bridget Riley. The trompe-l’œil effect is cleverly and accurately achieved. Is it any more than an exercise in perspective drawing? Not on the face of it, but the title, Hesitate, suggests that there is more to it than an exercise in technical drawing. The artist knows what that is but do we?
This bust of the poet Kathleen Raine, cleverly balanced on the subject’s arms, is by Gertrude Hermes. Its position enabled me to photograph it all round so I have combined four images into a short slideshow.
This sculpture by Jacob Epstein is in a form that I had no seen from this sculptor before, showing once again his versatility and predilection for working in may forms and styles. The flat slab has two faces and two sculptured images: on this side is that entitled Primeval Gods and on the other, Sun God. The work is so close to the wall, however, that it is not possible to photograph the whole of the Sun God surface without perhaps using a fisheye lens which would then distort to image.
The difference in dates may seem surprising, given that they are both carved on the same piece of stone but some sort of explanation for that appears here.
I could not pass Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel without photographing it again, even though I have already done so in another post (see A day of sculpture) where you will see more pictures of it. I wonder whether the artist was at all influenced by the fact that he shares his name with the protagonist.
The building in which the Tate Britain resides is beautiful and elegantly proportioned. Above is shown the recently refurbished Rotunda.
Its many adjoining rooms and broad archways allow intriguing perspectives. In the background of the above photo you can see Jacob and the Angel again, contrasted with the very differently styled sculpture in the foreground. This is Johanaan (1936), carved in elm by Ronald Moody.
As we left the Tate Britain, I took this panoramic shot of the Chelsea Art School across the road. How many of those students will one day see their works exhibited in the Tate or perhaps the Tate Modern?
Child prodigy and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood member John Everett Millais stands guard over the Tate in a sculptured form done by Sir Thomas Brock.
The gallery in situated in Millbank is known for political shenanigans, among other things, but the neighbourhood seems peaceful enough and possesses a pretty park called, appropriately, Millbank Gardens.
1“The Tate Britain Commission invites an artist to develop a new work in response to the Tate collection and the history of the Tate Britain.”