Dmitri Shostakovitch, Julian Barnes and The Noise of Time

Dmitri Shostakovitch, Julian Barnes and The Noise of Time

If those newspapers and politicians that last week denounced judges as ‘enemies of the people’ ever proceed to brand certain composers or artists with the same obloquy, then we’ll know that we are indeed entering a very dark place.

This thought occurred to me after reading Julian Barnes’ novella, The Noise of Time, a fictional biography of Dmitri Shostakovich which enters into the mind of the composer whose opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was denounced in a 1936 newspaper article approved by Stalin as ‘muddle instead of music’. ‘The people expect good songs, but also good instrumental works, and good operas,’ ranted the (very) senior Party official who wrote the piece, before concluding with a sinister threat: ‘The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, ‘formalist’ attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.’ Continue reading “Dmitri Shostakovitch, Julian Barnes and The Noise of Time”

I shall be released…

I shall be released…

Nelson Mandela released

February 1990: Nelson Mandela walks to freedom

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

It was one of those curious coincidences that seems to happen surprisingly often. The last few days have brought the news that the British Greenpeace activists are back in the UK after their incarceration in a Russian jail on charges of ‘hooliganism’ following the Arctic oil drilling protest – and that Pussy Riot activists Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had also walked free from prison, pledged to devote their energies to changing the political system in Russia and improving conditions inside its prisons. At the same time, I reached this moment reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – his own account of the afternoon of his release from prison on 11 February 1990:

By 3.30, I began to get restless, as we were already behind schedule. I told the members of the Reception Committee that my people had been waiting for me for twenty-seven years and I did not want to keep them waiting any longer. Shortly before four, we left in a small motorcade from the cottage. About a quarter of a mile in front of the gate, the car slowed to a stop and Winnie and I got out and began to walk towards the prison gate.

At first I could not really make out what was going on in front of us, but when I was within 150 feet or so, I saw a tremendous commotion and a great crowd of people: hundreds of photographers and television cameras and newspeople as well as several thousand well-wishers. I was astounded and a little bit alarmed. I had truly not expected such a scene; at most, I had imagined that there would be several dozen people, mainly the warders and their families. But this proved to be only the beginning; I realized we had not thoroughly prepared for all that was about to happen.

Within twenty feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic 5easts. Reporters started shouting questions; television crews began crowding in; ANC supporters were yelling and cheering. It was a happy, if slightly disorienting, chaos. […]

When I was among the crowd I raised my right fist, and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for twenty-seven years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy. We stayed among the crowd for only a few minutes before jumping back into the car for the drive to Cape Town. Although I was pleased to have such a reception, I was greatly vexed by the fact that I did not have a chance to say good bye to the prison staff. As I finally walked through those gates to enter a car on the other side, I felt – even at the age of seventy-one – that my life was beginning anew. My ten thousand days of imprisonment were at last over.

It’s pertinent to recall Mandela’s release at this time; it was he, after all, who wrote (also in Long Walk to Freedom):

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Speaking to the Guardian soon after her release from prison, Pussy Riot activist Maria Alyokhina said that she and  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova now plan to launch a project which will fight for the rights of inmates in the Russian prison system:

I decided to become a human rights activist when I realised how easy it was for officials to make a decision and force women to be examined in the most intimate parts of their bodies.  Russian officials should not stay unpunished, they cannot have this kind of absolute power over us. Russia is built along the same lines as a prison camp at the moment, so it’s important to change the prison camps so that we can start to change Russia.

Alexandra Harris

Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris

Meanwhile Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris spoke about how the Arctic 30 had been treated in jail. Prison conditions in Murmansk had been difficult – they were held in a cell for 23 hours a day and shared a toilet without a cubicle with three others. But, she said, they were treated better than Russian prisoners:

Because the world’s watching us and they’re scared of what we’re going to say now. There was no physical violence towards me but it was torture – we spent two months in a Russian jail cell and 100 days detained for a crime we didn’t commit. It was obscene, a complete overreaction on the part of Russia, and we should never have been there.

Fellow-activist Anthony Perrett said:

It was worth it. I think we brought the world’s attention to the fate of the Arctic and that’s difficult to do because it’s so far north. All the science is telling us that if humanity carries on as it is doing, in 1,500 years the planet will be dead. I don’t know how big a price you have to pay for that. The price we paid was jail.

I’d like to salute these ‘unharmful, gentle souls misplaced inside a jail’.

Robben Island prisoners break rocks, 1964

Robben Island prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, break rocks, 1964

Mandela returned in 1994 after being elected president.

Mandela returned to Robben Island in 1994 after being elected president.

See also

Pussy Riot: punks with antecedents

Pussy Riot: punks with antecedents

On The Guardian website today Carol Rumens has chosen as her poem of the week Punk Prayer by the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, three of whose members have just been sentenced to two years in a prison colony for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’.  Rumens has worked up her own version of the lyric which the three women performed in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour five months ago.

Rumens accepts that the performance was mildly shocking, but, she says, ‘loud, rude, up-yours protest is what punk is all about’. She treats the lyrics seriously – ‘they have something significant to say, which the careless translations slopping around the internet tend to obscure’ – and reminds readers that ‘the absurdity and dishonesty of the judgment … recall Joseph Brodsky’s trial, and also the fate of Irina Ratushinskaya, viciously punished, in part, for poems expressing her Christian beliefs’.

Rumens concludes:

How horrible to find that, post-perestroika, rampant capitalism and artistic repression are somehow able to cohabit. Pussy Riot have explained that their protest was not primarily against religion but against the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Putin. The lyrics they wrote for Punk Prayer bear out the truth of this claim.

Here is Carol Rumens’ version of Punk Prayer – but do read her gloss on the words, too:

(Chorus)
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!

Congregations genuflect,
Black robes brag gilt epaulettes,
Freedom’s phantom’s gone to heaven,
Gay Pride’s chained and in detention.
KGB’s chief saint descends
To guide the punks to prison vans.
Don’t upset His Saintship, ladies,
Stick to making love and babies.
Crap, crap, this godliness crap!
Crap, crap, this holiness crap!

(Chorus)
Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Be a feminist, we pray thee,
Be a feminist, we pray thee.

Bless our festering bastard-boss.
Let black cars parade the Cross.
The Missionary’s in class for cash.
Meet him there, and pay his stash.
Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin.
Better believe in God, you vermin!
Fight for rights, forget the rite –
Join our protest, Holy Virgin.

(Chorus)
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, we pray thee, banish him!

Irina Ratushinskaya was arrested on 17 September 1982 for anti-Soviet agitation. In April 1983, she was convicted of  ‘agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime’, sentenced to seven years in a labour camp followed by five years of internal exile.  She was released on 9 October 1986, on the eve of the summit in Reykjavík, Iceland between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

While in prison, Irina continued to write poetry. While her previous works had invariably been concerned with themes of love, Christian theology and artistic creativity (not politics as her accusers insisted), the poems written in prison, were charged with questions of human rights, freedom, and the beauty of life.  They were written on soap until memorised and then washed away.

Give me a nickname, prison, 
this first April 
evening of sadness 
shared with you. 
This hour for your songs 
of evil and goodness, 
confessions of love, 
salty jokes. 
They’ve taken my friends, 
ripped the cross from its chain, 
torn clothes, 
and then with boots 
struck at my breastbone 
torturing the remains 
of hope. 
My name is filed 
in profile, full-face – 
a numbered dossier. 
In custody – 
nothing is mine! 
Just as you have 
no one, nothing! 
On the window’s grating 
here’s all of me – christen me, 
give me a name, prison, 
send off to the transport 
not a boy, but a zek, 
so I’ll be welcomed 
with endearments by Kolyma, 
place of outcasts, executions 
in this twentieth century. 
– 5 October 1983

I will live and survive

I will live and survive and be asked: 
How they slammed my head against a trestle, 
How I had to freeze at nights, 
How my hair started to turn grey… 
But I’ll smile.  And will crack some joke 
And brush away the encroaching shadow. 
And I will render homage to the dry September 
That became my second birth. 
And I’ll be asked: ‘Doesn’t’ it hurt you to remember?’ 
Not being deceived by my outward flippancy. 
But the former names will detonate my memory – 
Magnificent as old cannon. 
And I will tell of the best people in all the earth, 
The most tender, but also the most invincible, 
How they waited for letters from their loved ones. 
And I’ll be asked: what helped us to live 
When there was neither letters nor any news – only walls, 
And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, 
And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. 
And I will tell of the first beauty 
I saw in captivity. 
A frost-covered window! No spyholes, nor walls, 
And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, 
And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. 
And I will tell of the first beauty 
I saw in captivity. 
A frost-covered window! No spy holes, nor walls, 
Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain – 
Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass, 
A cast pattern- none more beautiful could be dreamt! 
The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed 
Those brigand forest, campfire and birds! 
And how many times there was bitter cold weather 
And how many windows sparkled after that one – 
But never was it repeated, 
That heavily upheaval of rainbow ice! 
And anyway, what good would it be to me now, 
And what would be the pretext fro the festival? 
Such a gift can only be received once, 
And perhaps, it is only needed once.

In 1963, Joseph Brodsky’s poetry was denounced by a Leningrad newspaper as ‘pornographic and anti-Soviet’. He was interrogated, twice put in a mental institution and then arrested. Aged 23, Brodsky was charged with social parasitism by the Soviet authorities in a trial in 1964. His accusers called him ‘a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers’ who had failed to fulfill his ‘constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland’.

At his the trial, this exchange took place btween Brodsky and the judge:

Judge: And what is your profession, in general?
Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.
Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?

Brodsky was sentenced to five years hard labour and served 18 months on a farm in the Arctic Archangelsk region, three hundred and fifty miles from Leningrad. His sentence was commuted in 1965 after protests by prominent Soviet and foreign cultural figures, including Vladimir Yevtushenkov, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Jean-Paul Sartre as well as Anna Akhmatova.  Brodsky became a cause celebre in the West also when a secret transcription of trial minutes was smuggled out of the country, making him a symbol of artistic resistance in a totalitarian society, much like his mentor Akhmatova.

May 24, 1980 is a poem written on the occasion of Brodsky’s 40th birthday; this is his own translation:

I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles.
From the height of a glacier I beheld half a world, the earthly
width. Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.
Quit the country the bore and nursed me.
Those who forgot me would make a city.
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
I’ve admitted the sentries’ third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile; it’s stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.
Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.

Brodsky’s link to Anna Akhmatova takes us back to the era of Stalinist repression. Akhmatova’s poetry was condemned and censored by Stalinist authorities for its personal and religious elements.  She chose to remain in Russia, acting as witness to the atrocities around her. Her perennial themes include meditations on time and memory, and the difficulties of living and writing in the shadow of Stalinism.  She was a close friend of fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, who was sentenced to imprisonment in one of the labour camps of the Gulag where he would die.

Akhmatova narrowly escaped arrest, though her son Lev was imprisoned on numerous occasions by the Stalinist regime, accused of counter-revolutionary activity. In her poem Requiem, written between 1935 and 1940, she describes waiting in line for hours outside a prison in Leningrad for news of her son. This is the opening of Requiem:

Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected –
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us.

INSTEAD OF A PREFACE

During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe
this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.

DEDICATION

Mountains fall before this grief,
A mighty river stops its flow,
But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death.
Fresh winds softly blow for someone,
Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don’t know this,
We are everywhere the same, listening
To the scrape and turn of hateful keys
And the heavy tread of marching soldiers.
Waking early, as if for early mass,
Walking through the capital run wild, gone to seed,
We’d meet – the dead, lifeless; the sun,
Lower every day; the Neva, mistier:
But hope still sings forever in the distance.
The verdict. Immediately a flood of tears,
Followed by a total isolation,
As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out, or,
Thumped, she lies there brutally laid out,
But she still manages to walk, hesitantly, alone.
Where are you, my unwilling friends,
Captives of my two satanic years?
What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?
What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?
I send each one of you my salutation, and farewell.

Pussy Riot may seem a long way from Akhmatova and Mandelstam, but as Carole Cadwallader wrote in yesterday’s Observer:

Don’t underestimate their bravery. The members of Pussy Riot whom I met, who put their balaclavas and colourful dresses in their bags when they go out to work or university, “like Batman”, were aware that bad things happen to people who dare to stand out in Putin’s Russia. Journalists die. Opposition politicians are beaten up. It’s no coincidence that Tolokonnikova, Alekhina, Samutsevich – Nadia, Masha and Katia – laughed and joked as they were sentenced on Friday. The trial was a joke.

They’re now going to pay the price. Russian women’s prisons are even harsher than the male ones. The women have been depicted on state television as evil satanists and their lawyers fear for their safety. It’s unlikely they’ll stay in Moscow; like Khodorkovsky, they’ll probably be shipped off to a far-off prison in Siberia away from family and friends, from their young children. It’s not a joke. It’s a brutal, nasty place, Putin’s Russia. And because of Pussy Riot, we all now know that now.

Art in London: from Russia, Doig and Munoz

Art in London: from Russia, Doig and Munoz

We’ve been in London this week, taking in some great art exhibitions: From Russia (at the Royal Academy), the Juan Munoz Retrospective (Tate Modern) and Peter Doig at Tate Britain.

From Russia

This exhibition at the Royal Academy aims to explore the interchange between French and Russian art the first two decades of the 20th century. It was a rare opportunity to see paintings lent by the four major Russian museums: The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and The State Hermitage Museum and The State Russian Museum in St Petersburg. This was the first time works from these museums have been gathered for a single exhibition.

Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga
Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga

The exhibition was divided in four sections:

French and Russian realists

The Wanderers were an important group of Russian artists who broke away from the St Petersburg Academy and focused on Russian landscape, contemporary social issues, scenes from traditional peasant life and Russian history. Works by Ilya Repin, Ivan Kramskoy, Isaak Levitan, Valentin Serov and Mikhail Nesterov and others are shown with paintings by French artists of the Barbizon school such as Théodore Rousseau, Charles Daubigny and Jean-François Millet as well as the Salon painters Jules Bastien-Lepage and Albert Besnard.

Henri Matisse, The Dance
Henri Matisse, The Dance
The great collectors Shchukin and Morozov

This section was the stunning highlight of the exhibition, displaying masterpieces from the two great Moscow collections, those of Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin. These two Moscow textile merchants were the most brilliant and daring Russian collectors of their day. They scoured Paris for paintings by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and accumulated works by Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso. Shchukin became Matisse’s greatest patron, commissioning the celebrated The Dance as part of a bold scheme to decorate the grand staircase of his Moscow mansion. The Dance is the sensational highlight of the exhibition.

Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1914 by Natan Altman
Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1914 by Natan Altman
Diaghilev and the World of Art movement

The third section of the exhibition is devoted to the theatrical impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who was at the forefront of the World of Art movement. He played a vital role not only in presenting modern French art in Russia but also in taking Russian art to the West, particularly in Paris. Artists presented in this section of the exhibition include Alexander Benois and Leon Bakst, Boris Kustodiev, Nochiolas Roerich, Alexander Golovin and Valentin Serov as well as a selection of portraits of great figures of Russian cultural life such as Vsevolod Meyerhold, Feodor Chaliapin and a superb one of Anna Akhmatova. This extract from the current issue of the RA Magazine explains the portrait’s significance:

Its story encapsulates that of the exhibition – namely, that the cultural cross-currents between France and Russia from the late nineteenth century through the 1920s helped to create a revolution in art.

Few people outside Russia have heard of Altman, who, like Akhmatova, was 25 in 1914 when he painted her portrait. Both seemed to have flowering careers ahead of them. She had recently published an acclaimed volume of poetry. He had returned from a sojourn in Paris, where, with other Russian artists, he had felt the fresh wind of Cubism, so visible in this painting. But, despite its veneer of modernity, his portrait’s real character comes from the wintry blue tones and Akhmatova’s inward gaze, away from the viewer, conjuring the spirit of a poet celebrated for the purity and restraint of her verse.

Within three years, their worlds would be turned upside down. After the October Revolution, Altman painted revolutionary propaganda, of the kind discussed by Eric Hobsbawm in his article on the avant-garde , ultimately rising to become director of Russia’s first museum of contemporary art in the 1920s. Akhmatova, on the other hand, was accused of links with counter-revolutionaries and her poetry – today ranked among the finest of the twentieth century – became unpublishable.

While Akhmatova famously stayed in Russia, others emigrated when faced with the prospect of becoming ‘non-persons’. Among them were the pioneering collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov, early patrons of Matisse and Picasso. Hilary Spurling brings to life this pair of Moscow merchant princes, whose nationalised palaces of art have endowed Russia with some of the greatest modern art in the world. While she was researching her award-winning biography of Matisse, Spurling uncovered the astonishing story of how their art was sent to Siberia by Stalin and only gradually came out of exile in Soviet Russia.

A witness to those days is Irina Antonova, the indomitable director of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow for over four decades. In a telephone interview , she told me about how the Shchukin and Morosov paintings were divided between the Pushkin and the Hermitage museums after the War. Since such modern art was then ‘out of fashion’, she was only able to display all of the Pushkin’s holdings in 1974.

Today Russia’s art scene is rising in prominence, with super-rich collectors buying back their scattered heritage – at record prices – and inflating the market for contemporary Russian art, as Helen Kirwan-Taylor describes . But is there a Shchukin or Morosov among them? So far, such collectors appear thin on the ground, and not only in Russia. As Madame Antonova notes, Shchukin and Morosov ‘were true phenomena’. Without their vision this exhibition, and much of modern art, would not be possible. We salute them.

Modernism

Cross-currents between Russian and French art were particularly fertile in the early twentieth century. The final section of the exhibition illustrates the sequence artistic developments in this period. Wasily Kandinsky drew on the imagery of Russian fairy tales and combined it with Fauvist colour as a starting point for moves towards abstraction, while Marc Chagall adapted elements of French Cubism to his individual and poetic distillation of Russian-Jewish folklore. Bold reinterpretations of Cubism, as well as Italian Futurism, resulted in the brilliant Cubo-Futurist works by artists such as Natalia Goncharova. Suprematism, the radical, abstract style pioneered by Kazimir Malevich, was the culmination of these experiments and the exhibition closes with his celebrated Black Circle, Black Cross and Black Square that seemed to reject all forms of pictorial tradition.

Juan Munoz Retrospective

Juan Munoz, Wasteland

This was a powerful and moving exhibition of some of Munoz’s most striking works. We first encountered Munoz in the summer of 2001 when he had installed in the Turbine Hall strange groups of grey-suited figures involved in some unexplained drama in a network of balconies and corridors. Now we were able to see an extraordinary collection of his figures: alone, in small groups, or – as in Many Times, the work that fills the central gallery – a great mass of figures, a hundred virtually-identical Chinese men, all bald, all grinning, in urgent conversation. As the reviews below suggest, I’m not the only one who senses an affinity with Beckett in these works.

Juan Munoz, Many Times

From the exhibition guide:

Juan Muñoz came to international prominence in the mid-1980s with sculptural installations that place the figure in architectural environments. He described himself as a storyteller, and often arranged his figures and objects in carefully staged configurations that hint at unsettling and ambiguous scenarios. The way that the viewer encounters a work of art was important to Muñoz. He was fascinated by the tension between the illusory and the real, using tricks of scale and perspective to choreograph the viewer’s experience.

Muñoz was born in Madrid in 1953. He studied in London and New York, and worked as a curator in Spain before he began to exhibit his own work. Although principally a sculptor, he was also an accomplished draughtsman and writer, and collaborated on performance pieces, some of which can be heard and viewed in the café outside the exhibition. His last major installation was Double Bind, the second Unilever commission for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, which opened shortly before his tragically early death in 2001 at the age of 48.

The Wasteland (1987) was Muñoz’s first large-scale installation, taking its title from the poem by T S Eliot. The patterned surface simultaneously invites the viewer into the space and elongates the distance between the spectator and the small bronze figure sitting demurely on a shelf, its feet dangling in the air. Muñoz’s optical floor recalls antique Roman architecture, but also suggests a stage onto which the viewer has unwittingly stepped. The floor distinguishes an area and builds an expectation for some kind of exchange between the figure and the viewer to occur.

Many Times (1999) comprises 100 figures, identically dressed and with similar features, all modelled on an Art Nouveau ceramic bust of a head with Asian features that Muñoz discovered in a hotel. They form a dense crowd, closely interacting with each other, gathered in pairs or small circles and often apparently deep in conversation. Innumerable dramas seem to be played out among them as they appraise and respond to or sometimes ignore each other. The empty space of the gallery around and between individual figures is charged with the tensions created by the group. It is likely that Muñoz felt that these monochrome faces would have a quality of ‘otherness’ to European eyes. But rather than present them as specimens of the ‘exotic’, the scale of the work and the sheer number of figures means that the outnumbered viewer is more likely to feel his or her own sense of strangeness and isolation among them. As Muñoz once said, ‘The spectator becomes very much like the object to be looked at, and perhaps the viewer has become the one who is on view’.

Juan Munoz Seated Figures With Drums
Juan Munoz Seated Figures With Drums

Closed in a conspiratorial circle, the Seated Figures with Five Drums (1999) are as inward-looking as Muñoz’s works with standing figures. Oblivious to the presence of the viewer, they are wholly engaged with each other and with their drums. The drum was an important motif for Muñoz, appearing in works such as The Prompter, and he once inscribed a photograph of himself dressed as a drummer boy with the words ‘Self Portrait’. In his work, drums often carry a metaphorical association with the eardrum and the act of listening. In Wax Drum (1988), another work in this exhibition, a pair of scissors is plunged into the skin of a drum, evoking a violent stabbing of the eardrum, a wound that would result in deafness.

Peter Doig

Peter Doig, Reflection – What does your soul look like? 1996

At Tate Britain we saw a retrospective of the work of Peter Doig who made his name during the early 1990s with his distinctive approach to figurative painting. Spanning the last two decades, this major survey brings together over 50 paintings and works on paper, and includes many pieces which have never previously been shown in the UK, made since his move to Trinidad in 2002.

Peter Doig, Cabin-essence, 1993

This is one of several paintings prompted by Doig’s visit to the Unité d’Habitation apartments in Briey-en-Forêt, northeast France – one of several such visionary postwar projects designed by the modernist architect Le Corbusier.

Conceived as an ideal living space and opened in 1961, the apartment block fell into disrepair and was derelict by 1973, until subsequently reclaimed for habitation. In the early 1990s Doig was involved with a group of architects and artists who operated from the building. He used a handheld video camera to capture the disorientating experience of moving through the surrounding woods towards the building, and worked from the still images which he captured. In his paintings, the architecture appears and disappears within the screen of branches, so that foreground and background are held together in tension, opening up the drama within the surface of the painting.

Peter Doig, Pond Life, 1993

At various stages in his career, Doig has consciously sought to free up his approach to making paintings, often by tackling new subjects. Doig leaves behind any documentary value in the photographic sources he employs; instead, his pictures invoke a dream-like state. The artist had been working on Pond Life (1993) for three months before he added the reflection of the three figures, opening up the painting from a recognisable reality to something more magical.

Peter Doig, Blotter, 1993 (Walker Art Gallery)

See also