Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight

Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight

During the 1950s, the small harbour town of St Ives in Cornwall played host to an astonishing group of painters that included some of the leading modern artists of the time. Among them were Alan Davie, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron – and Peter Lanyon. Of them all, only Lanyon was actually Cornish.

He died too young – a fact underlined by Soaring Flight, the superb exhibition currently showing at the Courtauld Gallery which gathers together a considerable number of his paintings inspired by gliding, the pastime which ended up taking his life.

Continue reading “Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight”

Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot

Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot

Well I tried, didn’t I? I have to admit, I’ve always had a blind spot where Jackson Pollock’s concerned. So I was not that keen on seeing Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots at Tate Liverpool. But I was persuaded by my daughter – who was blown away by the Pollocks she saw in MoMA a few years ago – to give it a go. I came away still unconvinced. Continue reading “Jackson Pollock at Tate Liverpool: wrestling with a blind spot”

Ravilious at Dulwich: dot and speck and dash and dab

Ravilious at Dulwich: dot and speck and dash and dab

One morning in 1934, Eric Ravilious set off with a sketch pad from his home in Brick House, Great Bardfield, Essex. He didn’t go far – just around the corner, in fact, to where a repair yard for steam engines was filled with derelict farm machinery and abandoned vehicles of all kinds. In one corner an old Talbot-Daracq motor car stood rusting, its engine and tyres cannibalised and the fine upholstery of the seats in stark contrast to the jumble of metal objects scattered around. Continue reading “Ravilious at Dulwich: dot and speck and dash and dab”

Expressionists in Berlin (Impressionists, too)

Expressionists in Berlin (Impressionists, too)

Impressionism is usually seen as the antithesis of Expressionism, but while we were in Berlin we queued for over an hour to see a stunning exhibition at the the Alte Nationalgalerie, on Museum Island – snappily titled on the banners, ImEx – which brings together a lavish helping of paintings from both movements, presenting them in such a way as to emphasise the similarities as well as the differences between them. Near contemporaries at a time of social upheaval, the exhibition explores common concerns: urban life, cafes, cabaret and dancers, the countryside and nature, and new relationships between the sexes.

Queueing for Im-Ex
Queueing for ImEx outside the Alte Nationalgalerie

What is unusual about this exhibition is the way in which paintings from both styles been placed in direct confrontation with one another, with the curators often pairing an impressionist work with one by an expressionist artist in order to show the same subject treated in different styles.

There’s a Paris-Berlin thing going on here, too, with the exhibition recalling a time, early in the 20th century, when Berlin took over from Paris as the capital of modernism – until that was all snuffed out by the Nazis in the 1930s.

It was a time when the world’s avant-garde artists and writers gathered in Berlin, and its galleries were filled with works by the leading French Impressionists, such as Monet and Manet, both of whom feature prominently in the exhibition. German Impressionism – whose leading lights included Max Liebermann, Lovis Corinth, and Max Slevogt – developed in the 1890s as a response to the movement in France. But then came a fierce backlash with the advent of Expressionism, spearheaded by German painters such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and Emil Nolde.

Banners outside the National Gallery, Berlin
ImEx banners outside the National Gallery, Berlin

The Alte Nationalgalerie where we saw this exhibition has close connections to the history of artists working in both styles. It’s a story that begins in 1882, when Carl Bernstein, a wealthy lawyer from Berlin and a cousin of Charles Ephrussi (the netsuke collector in The Hare with Amber Eyes), travelled to Paris and brought back a selection of modern French paintings by Manet, Monet, Degas and Sisley. Many of his  German artist friends found the paintings appalling. However, one friend, Hugo von Tschudi, was so impressed by the new French painting style that when he became director in 1896, Berlin’s National Gallery became the first museum in the world to acquire Impressionist paintings and soon became the go-to place to see Impressionist art.

Tschudi’s successor, Ludwig Justi, on the other hand, amassed a spectacular collection of Expressionist works after 1918 for the new wing of the National Gallery. For many years, impressive collections of works by Impressionists and Expressionists were found under the same roof, though they were never exhibited together.

Despite the stark contrast that would later be made between the two styles, this exhibition demonstrates that Impressionism and early Expressionism shared  many characteristics. Both movements represented a rejection of the current art conventions of academic art: artists often painted outdoors, constructed their pictures from freely brushed colours that took precedence over lines and contours, portrayed immediate experiences of light and colour, and focussed on scenes from life in the modern city.

The Expressionists are often described as having abandoned the naturalism of Impressionism in favour of a more raw focus on colour and movement to express deep and sometimes troubled emotional states. But this juxtaposition – the first time Impressionists and Expressionists have been exhibited side by side in a big show – reveals surprising similarities and shared influences.

Impressionists such as Monet and Renoir made their break with academic art by using loose brush strokes to create subtle depictions of light. A generation later, expressionists like Kirchner and Nolde used stronger colours and firm brush strokes, also breaking with tradition – including that of the impressionists themselves.

ImEx groups works together in twelve rooms, each focussing on a different theme, such as ‘Bathers and Dreams of Paradise’; ‘City, Suburb, Pedestrians’; ‘Diversions: Cafés, Dancers, and Cabaret Life’; and ‘Out of Doors: The Creation of Leisure’

Both movements were fascinated by contemporary urban life, with scenes in bars, restaurants or cabarets. At the same time they also had a longing for nature and enjoyed painting outdoors, capturing effects of light and colour. Both found new ways of looking; but whereas Impressionists tended to focus on the process of seeing itself, the Expressionists were committed to art that expressed feelings and emotions. Other areas of common interest to which the curators draw attention included cafés, bars and dancers, country homes and interiors, leisure time and nature – and the city.

Gallery: City, Suburb, Pedestrians

Impressionism and Expressionism both exploded from urban cultures, both fascinated by the energy and movement of the fast-growing cities of their time: their busy streets, glittering lights, broad boulevards and bustling squares became key motifs for artists. In 1863, Charles Baudelaire described a painter wandering through the city as a flâneur, ‘looking for that something which you must permit me to call modernity.’ From the 1860s, Claude Monet and his fellow Impressionists were inspired by Paris, while from 1900, the Expressionists focused mainly on Berlin.

Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre at Night shows a brightly illuminated avenue in Paris – the city lights turned into dabs of oil paint. Hung next to the French impressionist’s 1897 work is Nollendorfplatz, painted by German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 1912, its restless, jagged brush-strokes depicting the busy Berlin junction just round the corner from the boarding house at Nollendorfstrasse 17 where Christopher Isherwood rented a room for three years and observed Hitler’s rise to power.

Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge, an 1899 London scene, is paired with Kirchner’s Rhine River Bridge in Cologne, from 1914, while Camille Pissarro’s impressionist Boulevard Montmartre at Night, depicting the busy Parisian street at night in 1897, is echoed by two Berlin nightscapes by German impressionist Lesser Ury, and Max Beckmann’s expressionist Street at Night from 1913. (In 1919, in the portfolio Hell, Max Beckmann would depict the streets of Berlin in a different light: ten lithographs would present an unflinching look at social disintegration and civil violence in the capital after the catastrophe of the First World War.)

Perhaps the most vivid contrast offered by the curators is the placing of Kirchner’s expressionistic Potsdamer Platz – a fevered image of slashing strokes, jarring colours and heavy slabs of paint made on the eve of the First World War – opposite Hans Herrmann’s impressionistic Potsdamer Platz in 1894 which depicts the same square as an almost tranquil scene with horse-drawn carriages, flower sellers, and a baby in a perambulator on a bright summer’s day.

Gallery: Bathers

ImEx actually begins with a section called Bathers: Dreams of Paradise, where we find Cezanne’s Seven Bathers from 1900. Which is appropriate, given that Cezanne’s work formed the bridge between Impressionism and Expressionism (and several more artistic currents in the new century).

Bathers became a significant motif in the paintings of late Impressionism and Expressionism as Cézanne’s images of naked men or women by the water became a much-replicated ideal for artists from both movements. German impressionist Max Liebermann’s Bathing Boys from 1902 hangs alongside Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Bathers at the Shore, from 1913 – same subject and almost the same viewpoint, but starkly different in their rendering of the seashore and the figures. Kirchner’s more abstract figures, swirling waves and dramatic colouring express a greater sense of freedom than Lieberman’s more stiffly-posed figures.

If paintings of bathers on the beaches of the North Sea or the Baltic – as in Kirchner’s painting, or Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s Three Nudes (Dune Picture from Nidden) – evoked a dream of harmony with nature far from the stifling rules of the bourgeois world, some artists looked further afield for true natural ‘primitiveness’ in the South Seas, among the natives of Tahiti or Papua New Guinea, as represented by Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Fisherwomen and Emil Nolde’s Papuan Youths.

Gallery: Out of Doors

The period during which these artist made their work was one in which the idea of leisure time as a break from the all-consuming world of work spread beyond the bourgeoisie to the working class. The railway allowed both working class and middle class to travel to the city’s outskirts and into the countryside, away from the noise and crowded streets of the metropolis.

Both Impressionists and Expressionists were observers of these developments, and painted en plein air, depicting scenes on river banks, and in meadows. Often their subject would be the people who gathered to relax in gardens, public parks, zoos, and outdoor cafes (Eduard Manet’s masterpiece At Père Lathuille´s being a classic example of the latter).

One pairing points up contrasts between the two schools: Renoir’s 1881 impressionist masterpiece Chestnut Tree in Bloom depicts a lush and idyllic landscape, while Canal in Winter by Erich Heckel, a founding member of  the Die Brücke group of Expressionist painters, is dark and dense with thick brush strokes that depict dark trees arched above the canal whose equally black water reflects them back. It’s more an expression of the artist’s state of mind, perhaps, than a realistic depiction of the scene.

Gallery: Country Homes

A section devoted to Country Homes reflects an artistic fascination in this period with gardens and houses surrounded by trees, with examples from
Monet and Manet, Max Liebermann, Max Slevogt, as well as Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.

Gallery: Diversions: Cafés, Dancers, and Cabaret Life

In Diversions, the curators have grouped together paintings of scenes observed in the cafes, bars, circuses and night clubs of the turn-of-century city. Song and dance interludes offered by restaurants and known as ‘café-concerts’ were especially popular: at such venues the female clown Cha-U-Kao would perform (as depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec), while  can-can dancers were the stars of vaudeville theatres such as the Moulin Rouge or the dance hall at the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre (as paintings here by Van Gogh, Degas and Kirchner confirm).

Artists such as Kirchner and Nolde recorded their experiences
exploring Berlin’s night-life, but for me the real opener in this room was Auguste Chabaud’s arresting scene outside a Montmartre night club (or is it a brothel?), Girl With Red Tie, painted in 1907, but looking as if it might have been finished yesterday.

Gallery: Couples and relationships

The late 19th century was a time when the traditional roles of men and women began to shift in response to the social and economic changes of the time. This was a period in which popular magazines and novels were filled with such themes as failed marriages, romantic affairs, and personal tragedies. While writers created challenging psychological portraits of failed marriages in works such as Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Hedda Gabler, French and German Impressionism and early Expressionism produced a remarkable number of pictures of couples and families, many of which do not reflect a family idyll.

Instead, these paintings often emphasized the specific character of the individual rather than a couple’s togetherness or a family’s sense of belonging. Those painted are often turning or looking in different directions. Manet’s work (represented here by In the Conservatory) for example, is characterized by the vacant gaze of some of his subjects. Thus, in various ways, these pictures reflect the shifting gender dynamic of the late nineteenth century. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bleakest works here are both by Edvard Munch.

Gallery: Premonitions of War,1913

I must admit I began to zone out in the rooms devoted to portraits of artists and their patrons, scenes ‘behind closed doors’ and animals. Few of the  paintings in these sections matched the excitements of the earlier rooms. It was only in the final room that my interest was reawakened. In Premonitions of War: 1913, the curators have grouped works that reflect Georg Heym’s sense that – as the German Empire became deeply divided between nationalists and social revolutionaries, and Nietzsche questioned his contemporaries’ belief in progress – the ‘end of days’ had arrived.

Although the avant-garde flourished in this period, Expressionist painters created images in 1913 that seem like premonitions of the approaching war. Otto Dix’s pale-yellow Sunrise with black crows settling on a snow-covered field as the sun rises like a bursting bomb-shell in a turbulent sky projects a nightmarish atmosphere, while Emil Nolde’s Battlefield with its rearing, screaming horse seems to foretell the suffering of the impending war.

I had never seen Ferdinand Hodler’s The Orator before, but this massive work (it’s eight feet tall) that depicts a gesturing agitator chillingly predicts the decades to come in which demagogues of both left and right would fight an ideological battle, manipulating public opinion and devastating Europe.

The exhibition brings you face to face, finally, with a wood-carving by Ernst Barlach, whose Hovering Angel was a high point of the British Museum’s Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition recently. The Abandoned Ones is a similar work, deeply moving, carved in walnut.

Barlach had begun to carve in wood in 1907, drawing mainly on the simplicity and strength of expression found in Romanesque and Gothic sculpture of northern Europe. His work, usually only of single figures,  depicts human loneliness, fear, and suffering, and is comparable to that of his friend Kathe Köllwitz.

Although he is probably situated in this show as a representative of Expressionism, Barlach was never affiliated with the expressionist movement, and like Kathe Köllwitz he remained unaffiliated to any avant-garde movement or style.

But Barlach shared Köllwitz’s hatred of the suffering and chaos brought about by war, and these feelings are expressed profoundly in The Abandoned Ones. Like so many of the Expressionist artists whose paintings are displayed in this exhibition, Barlach’s work was declared ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, who removed nearly 400 of his works from museums and churches, destroying many. Weakened by Nazi persecution, he died in 1938.

Die Brucke 001
The entrance to the Brucke Museum

Berlin is the place to see works by Expressionists, of course, and a couple of days earlier we had begun a walk through the Grunewald Forest in the western suburb of Dahlem at the Brucke Museum which, though small, houses the world’s largest collection of works by Die Brücke (‘The Bridge’), the seminal movement of German Expressionist artists, formed in 1905.

Die Brucke 1
Schoolkids enjoying Expressionist art at the Brucke Museum

The group was founded by four in Dresden by four young artists – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel – and had a decisive impact on the development of 20th century art. Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde joined in 1906 and Otto Mueller in 1910. The Brücke´s pictorial language and critical attitude towards traditional academic painting fostered the movement that later came to be called Expressionism.

The museum opened in 1967, the core of its collection being a generous donations by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel, subsequently enlarged by further acquisitions. Today the Brücke Museum owns around 400 paintings and sculptures as well as several thousand drawings, watercolours and prints by all of the Brücke artists.

Die Brucke 2
Part of the Schmidt-Rottluff display at the Brucke Museum

Unfortunately, because the museum is so small, it lacks the space to exhibit more than a small fraction of the collection, choosing instead to mount exhibitions that showcase the work of one artist. When we visited we found that, apart from a small display of work by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, the main event was an exhibition of work by Otto Mueller which consisted primarily of paintings of naked young girls depicted in pairs or threes in woodland settings, and portraits of Romani women and family groups.

Personally, I found most of these paintings over-stylised and faintly disturbing in their voyeuristic obsession with naked girls and his somewhat condescending portrayal of Romani people. This may represent a calumny of Mueller on my part, since the museum guide states that:

Mueller was one of the most lyrical of German expressionist painters. The main topic of Mueller’s works is the unity of humans and nature; his paintings emphasize a harmonious simplification of form, colour and contours.

Referring to the ‘gypsy portfolio’, the guide states:

Since 1924 Otto Mueller visited the south-east of Europe several times. He was very interested in the ethnic groups of the Sinti and the Roma. He portrayed them in their private environment and with their families. These lithographs as well as the other exhibited works demonstrate how Mueller was intensely engaged in the possibility of an authentic and general depiction of human being and nature.

However, I did appreciate a Forest Landscape from 1924 (minus nude girls) and a portrait of Mueller made in 1930 by Erich Heckel – which included a small – and no doubt symbolically significant detail of a pair of sparrows; I liked that because it seemed to me that Berlin was a city of sparrows, their chirping waking us at dawn outside our hotel window, and their presence everywhere in the city.

In 1937 the Nazis seized 357 of Mueller’s works from German museums, since the pictures were considered to be degenerate art.

Gallery: Otto Mueller works

Leaving the Museum, and before setting out on our forest walk, we discovered next door the Kunsthaus Dahlem, housed in the former Nazi-built studio of the sculptor Arno Breker.

The Kunsthaus Dahlem
The Kunsthaus Dahlem

The building was constructed between 1939 and 1942 on Hitler’s orders as a workshop for Arno Breker, Hitler’s favourite and one of the busiest sculptors of the Third Reich. From 1937, Breker produced ornamental sculptures for Albert Speer’s monumental building projects.

Kunsthaus Dahlem 3
The Kunsthaus Dahlem

The building is actually very pleasing, its simple, functional lines harmonizing with the woodland setting. When it was built it was
outfitted with the latest technical equipment such as a crane and a hydraulic freight lift with basement access. However, Breker only used the workshop occasionally as increased Allied bombing made using the place too dangerous. Instead, his main workplace became a manor house that Hitler had given him on his fortieth birthday in 1940.

After the end of the war, the place was first used by the American occupying forces, then became property of the East German government, which used it as studio space for visiting artists. Today, the Kunsthaus Dahlem is opening as the first museum focused exclusively on German art made between the end of the war and the fall of the Wall.

Waldemar Grzimek, Artists 1, 1951
Waldemar Grzimek, Artists 1, 1951

Inside, it’s a high-ceilinged, airy space that currently houses a selection of sculptures, including Waldemar Grzimek’s striking Artists 1, made 1951 and glimpsed from the doorway in my photo. Work still seemed to be going on, making the venue ready for the public.

Tricia Porter’s photographs of Liverpool 8 in the 1970s

Tricia Porter’s photographs of Liverpool 8 in the 1970s

A week or so ago I wrote about L8 Unseen, a photography exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.  Now I’ve been to see another exhibition of photographs from Liverpool 8, this one at the Bluecoat.  Titled, Tricia Porter: Liverpool Photographs 1972-74, the show presents images virtually unseen for 40 years which provide a vivid picture of everyday life in Liverpool 8 at a time when it was undergoing significant change leading to the break-up of close knit communities.

Tricia Porter, Men in Myrtle Street, 1972
Tricia Porter, Men in Myrtle Street, 1972

The photos were taken by Tricia Porter who arrived in the city in 1972 where she met her future husband David, then a student at Liverpool University. He lived in Catherine Street and later Percy Street, which back then were both streets in which the elegant Georgian terraces – typical of the area – were faded and often neglected by private landlords. David was keen to document the changing community, and Tricia decided  to join him to photograph the people they met. The couple were welcomed into the area, and gained the trust of the residents who allowed them access to their lives, businesses and homes.

After leaving Liverpool University in 1971, we too were making a life together in flats in the same area – first in Princes Avenue, and then in Canning Street. So I was particularly interested to see these images that triggered memories of an area that has changed in so many ways in the decades that have followed.

Tricia Porter, Local resident on the corner of Sugnall Street and Falkner Street, 1972
Tricia Porter, Local resident on the corner of Sugnall Street and Falkner Street, 1972

The Bluecoat exhibition comprises images from two series of photographs shot by Tricia Porter over a two year period. The first, Bedford Street, Liverpool 8 (1972) focused on residents at home, at work, in pubs, or out and about in the area. They include street scenes and images of individuals and families in their homes; some are portraits of well-known characters, such as the social campaigner and local councillor Margaret Simey, and Liverpool sculptor Herbert Tyson Smith in his studio at the Bluecoat.

Tricia Porter, The Chippy in Falkner Street, 1972
Tricia Porter, The Chippy in Falkner Street, 1972

Some of the most evocative images for me were of Bedford Street itself, before the shops (including Bedford Street Stores, an old-fashioned general grocery where we often shopped) and the terraced houses were demolished and replaced by university buildings as the campus began the inexorable expansion that continues to this day.

Tricia Porter, Molly in the Blackburne Arms, 1972
Tricia Porter, Molly in the Blackburne Arms, 1972

All around the area, houses were being pulled down and people relocated Part of Falkner Street was bought by the University to be developed as student accommodation, along with the north side of Bedford Street. In the summer of 1972, David and Tricia met people in their homes, in shops, pubs, schools, churches and hospital, talking with them and photographing them. In January 1973, the resulting photographs were shown at Liverpool
Academy Gallery.

Alongside examples of the photos taken by Tricia that summer, the Bluecoat exhibition also features spreads from Amateur Photographer that covered the 1973 exhibition, and a subsequent one in 1975, as well as displays of other press coverage including articles from the local press and a feature in the Merseyside Arts Association magazine, Arts Alive.

There are displays of exhibition posters, invitation card and a brochure containing Tricia’s text about her work. One poster is for an exhibition later in 1978 at the Half Moon Gallery, London. David and Tricia intended to make their texts and photographs into a book; it never happened, but a mock-up for it is on display.

Tricia Porter, Margaret Simey at home, Blackburne Place,1972
Tricia Porter, Margaret Simey at home, Blackburne Place,1972

Two years after the Bedford Street portfolio, Tricia produced another collection, called Some Liverpool Kids (1974), in which images of young people predominate, playing on Windsor Street or in the Anglican Cathedral grounds, posing for group portraits, at street parties and youth clubs, in school, shops and at home.

Tricia Porter, Football team, 1974
Tricia Porter, Football team, 1974

Taken together, these two series offer an affectionate portrait of this multicultural area and its people. It was, says the artist, ‘an attempt to make a photo documentary which would be a positive and meaningful
statement about my neighbours who had all too often been treated as statistical fodder and sociological phenomena.’

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent illustrated brochure which includes an essay by Tricia Porter, and a foreword by Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director at the Bluecoat.  In it he writes of how he first came across Tricia Porter’s photographs in 2014 on her website.  For Bryan, as for me, her photographs struck a chord: at the time the photos were being taken, Bryan was an art student, newly arrived in Liverpool. He recalls:

The faded splendour of large, Georgian terraces, the late-night clubs stretching along Princes Avenue and ‘Upper Parly’, the hordes of young people improvising adventure playgrounds out of bomb-sites, and the Anglican Cathedral looming large over everything.

There was a vitality on the streets that is now absent in the gentrified calm of the ‘Georgian Quarter’ or the eerie stillness of the boarded up or bulldozed streets around Granby. Tricia’s photographs capture something of that time, presenting a compelling picture of everyday life in what was a truly multicultural part of the city.

Tricia Porter, Girls at the youth club,1974
Tricia Porter, Girls at the youth club,1974

This exhibition, like L8 Unseen, is part of Look 15, Liverpool’s biennial international photography festival. Bryan Biggs observes that exhibiting Tricia Porter’s photographs is important because photography ‘has changed so fundamentally – technically and democratically (it seems everyone is a photographer now) – since they were taken.’

Tricia’s photographs present not necessarily a more innocent time, but one less complex in comparison to the ubiquity today of of photographic images, their endless digital reproduction and dissemination, issues around the legalities of who ‘owns’ the right to take and distribute images of people, and the ethics of taking portraits without permission.

One could add: the possibility to take candid photos of children in the street without legal restriction or fear of being suspected of having nefarious intent.

In the exhibition brochure, Tricia Porter writes about her intentions in taking these photos:

I particularly wanted to use my photographs to portray our individuality, our unique personalities – a special and important aspect that the media and government bodies too readily ignore. People in this district of Liverpool, for instance, were often characterised as vandals or thieves.  I applied successfully to the Arts Council for funding to try to discover through photography a more truthful portrayal of the people in the community – not to conceal the serious problems of mugging or vandalism, but to focus more on aspects of everyday living and personal relationships.

This is a fascinating exhibition which not only brings back into focus what now seems a long-lost period in Liverpool’s past, but also reveals images that challenged the stereotypes of those who lived in Liverpool 8 at the time – stereotypes that over the next two decades were to intensify and become even more hostile.

See also

L8 Unseen: picturing a state of mind, an idea, a culture

L8 Unseen: picturing a state of mind, an idea, a culture

There’s an engaging photography exhibition showing at the Museum of Liverpool at the moment.  L8 Unseen features twenty arresting large-scale photographs of individuals and groups who have made their home in Liverpool 8, and whose work reflects its vibrant and determined culture.

Liverpool 8 is a state of mind, an idea, a culture, rather than just a geographical location. L8 transcends postcode boundaries.

So says historian Laurence Westgaph in the introduction to the exhibition. L8 Unseen aims to reveal that state of mind through carefully-staged photographs taken by Othello De’Souza-Hartley accompanied by filmed interviews that highlight the stories and experiences of a diverse range of people from the Liverpool 8 community.

Photographer and artist Othello De Souza-Hartley (Left) and Marc Boothe of B3 Media
Photographer and artist Othello De Souza-Hartley (left) and Marc Boothe of B3 Media

The project was the brainchild of Marc Boothe of B3 Media, and the images were captured by London photographer and artist Othello D’Souza-Hartley, who has previously exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A. In 2014, they began gathering stories and images from the people of Liverpool 8, seeking particularly to present alternatives to the more usual, stereotypical images of the area that tend to predominate in the media.

L8 Unseen 1
L8 Unseen: Imam Mohammed Alawi, Dr Peter Grant, Father Iakovos Kasinos, and Canon Bob Lewis.

The photographs were taken in buildings which have historical significance for the people of Liverpool 8, since many of them were founded on the proceeds of the city’s international trading links and the transatlantic slave trade. Setting portraits of individuals and members of groups active in the local community in these locations encourages the viewer to reflect on the city’s history and the patterns of global trade, immigration and settlement which created the rich ethnic mix of L8 and shaped the area’s culture and identity.

So, for example, the photo of four of the area’s faith leaders – Imam Mohammed Alawi (Al Taiseer Mosque), Dr Peter Grant (Princes Road Synagogue), Father Iakovos Kasinos (St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, and Reverend Canon Bob Lewis (St Margaret of Antioch Church) – was taken in Liverpool Town Hall, one of the finest Georgian
civic buildings in the country built in 1749, but with money raised by benefactors who had made fortunes through the slave trade.

Historian Laurence Westgaph again:

The people and cultures that make up the most diverse community on Merseyside have a proud history that began more than 250 years ago. The area developed in the 18th century as Liverpool’s dock capacity increased to accommodate a greater number of larger ships. Tradesmen and builders were drawn from Scotland, Wales and Ireland and settled there.

The area also incorporates the south side of L1 known as ‘Sailortown’ where mainly male migrants from Africa, Asia and the Americas originally settled. Many went on to marry the daughters of their white neighbours. Some of these men and women crossed over the Parliament Street border with their families into the north west end of Toxteth during the 19th and early 20th centuries. …

From there, the community continued to migrate further east and by the 1960s many of the descendants of the early L8 community were actually living in L7, in the Georgian townhouses of Falkner Street, Upper Canning and Upper Huskisson Street. Some in the community were upwardly mobile, owning family businesses and providing vital services to the multitude of seafarers who were confronted by signs in the windows of boarding houses saying ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’.

L8 Unseen 2
L8 Unseen: Tayo Aluko, Ramon ‘Sugar’ Deen, and Laurence Westgaph in the Athenaeum

One of the most successful – and striking – images in the exhibition presents three local men of Afro-Caribbean heritage and successful in the arts and media in the setting of the Athenaeum, the oldest private members’ club in Liverpool, in existence since 1797. The club was founded by Liverpool’s most prominent citizens, many of whom, the exhibition commentary notes, were involved in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade(but note the comment below from David Steers).

The photo features Tayo Aluko (born in Nigeria, a writer, actor and singer who trained and worked as an architect in Liverpool, before he gave up architecture to travel the world performing his one-man play about Paul Robeson), Ramon ‘Sugar’ Deen (club and cabaret singer in the Merseybeat days), and Laurence Westgaph (historian who grew up on the Falkner estate in the 1980s).

L8 Unseen Bill Harpe
L8 Unseen: Bill Harpe in the Black-E

Many of the individuals you encounter in these images are well-known to people who live in the area, but less so beyond. One who certainly has a wider profile is Bill Harpe, co-founder and director of the Black-E Community Arts Centre.  Originally from county Durham, Bill came to Liverpool in 1961 to dance at the Empire Theatre. Falling in love with Liverpool 8, he set up home here and founded Britain’s first community arts project. The project was originally known as the Blackie – a scouse shortening of ‘The Black Church’, describing the Congregational Chapel built as the Great George Street Church in 1840 and by the 1960s darkened with a century of city smoke and grime – though now goes by the name The Black-E , more appropriate perhaps, given the proximity of the building to Britain’s oldest established African-Caribbean community – and to Europe’s oldest Chinatown – as well as the project’s commitment to cultural diversity.

L8 Unseen Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra
L8 Unseen: The Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra

The Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra is based in Liverpool and is the first and largest Chinese youth orchestra in Europe. It teaches young people how to play traditional Chinese musical instruments and offers a programme of training and performance opportunities throughout the year.

At the entrance to the exhibition a panel carries these words from Marc Boothe, Producer, B3 Media:

Liverpool 8 can be different things to different people. For some it is an idea, a culture, rather than simply a geographical location. L8 transcends postcode boundaries. Yet L8 is also a definite space.

Generations of families have come, lived and forged their own identities here. At times their stories have taken in riots and rebellion as well as the everyday human journey of births and deaths, loves and struggles and making a hard living. Memories and stories merge, where do they begin and end? They might arise in China, Somalia or Poland but they continue here and enrich the lives of those in L8, in Britain and in other parts of the world. But L8 it is not a place where separate communities live separate lives. It is these stories of shared experiences that capture the real spirit and heritage of the area from the past and the present, for the future.

L8 Unseen 3
L8 Unseen: Sheila Coleman, Donna Kassim and Sonia Bassey pictured in 19 Abercromby Square.

Three women with a strong sense of pride, political awareness and community activism are pictured in 19 Abercromby Square, an elegant town house, now part of the University of Liverpool.  The house was built in the 1860s for the affluent businessman Charles Kuhn Prioleau from South Carolina who supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and helped finance the construction of the Alabama, built in secret at John Lairds shipyard, Birkenhead before serving the Southern cause by attacking Union merchant and naval ships.

Sheila Coleman hails from from a large Liverpool-Irish family, and calls herself ‘scouse, not English’. She’s a well-known activist and campaigner, particularly as spokesperson for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign. She currently works as the North West region community coordinator for the trade union Unite. Donna Kassim is Regional Officer for Unite, while Sonia Bassey, following a successful career as a community artist and director of her own business, now works in local government, responsible for family services.

L8 Unseen Tiber Young People's Steering Group
L8 Unseen: Tiber Young People’s Steering Group in the boardroom of the Royal Liver Building

The Tiber Young People’s Steering Group consists of young people from the Lodge Lane area who are fully involved in planning and decision-making for a major project to build a public square on the Tiber Street site (chosen by the retail guru Mary Portas to be part of her UK-wide campaign to ‘save the high street’). There’s an interesting clip on Vimeo in which Tiber Youth Facilitator Stephen Nze talks about the project and his work.

So what is the culture of L8? Maybe it is the culture of accepting,
tolerating and welcoming people from other cultures. This can be demonstrated in the most obvious and meaningful way, through ‘interracial’ marriage and relationships. It is not a neighbourhood where separate communities live separate lives within a multi-cultural area, similar to what can be seen in many other towns and cities in Britain. L8 is a community where people from all parts of the globe have intermingled genetically and otherwise, for generations.
Laurence Westgaph, Historian – L8

L8 Unseen is a multimedia exhibition – visitors are offered a number of ways to access the content, including a smartphone app that will play extracts from the oral history interviews as visitors walk around the display. In a separate space there is a continuous screening of the oral histories, complemented by archive photography and stories from the Liverpool 8 Old Photos Facebook group, while visitors are encouraged to add their own L8 tales via a video booth.

The exhibition is part of Look 15, the Liverpool International Photography Festival, which continues throughout May. This year’s theme, Exchange, explores three key topics and the interactions between them: Migration, Women and Photography, and Memory.

See also

Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all

Andy Warhol looks a scream
Hang him on my wall
Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can’t tell them apart at all
David Bowie

He was one of the stupidest people I’d ever met in my life. He had nothing to say.
– Robert Hughes

Walking around Transmitting Andy Warhol at Tate Liverpool, I realised I haven’t got much time for Warhol.  Oh, I get what he was saying, and I know about his impact on the art world.  But looking around this small but well-chosen selection of his work I cannot find one work that really moves or inspires me, nothing that reflects the beauty or the mystery in the world, or speaks to the realities of daily life as experienced by most people now, in our time of austerity. Continue reading “Transmitting Andy Warhol: can’t tell them apart at all”