Yves Klein at Liverpool Tate: vision of cosmic infinity – or a crock of shit?

Yves Klein at Liverpool Tate: vision of cosmic infinity – or a crock of shit?

In 1961, Piero Manzoni filled ninety tin cans with his own excrement. A label on each can identified the contents as ‘Artist’s Shit’, contents 30gr net freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961.’ Each was numbered on the lid (the Tate owns number 004).

Yves Klein’s work, currently on display at Tate Liverpool, is prettier and, no doubt, sweeter-smelling – but just as provocative. Coming away from this exhibition with its po-faced, art-speak commentary (‘Klein’s vision was to express absolute immateriality and infinite space through pure colour’), I did wonder who was conning who. Described variously as a joker, prankster, provocateur, and ‘a dandy in a black silk suit, who dreamed of cosmic infinity,’ Klein once sold empty gallery space for gold; later (in a scene witnessed by an art critic), the buyer destroyed their certificate of ownership while Klein threw the gold into the Seine.

As a young man Yves Klein, lying on the beach in Nice, declared that ‘The blue sky is my first artwork.’ In 1949 he created his Monotone Symphony: a single twenty-minute sustained note followed by a twenty minute silence, in his view a representation of a monochrome painting. In his 1957 show, Monochrome Proposals, Klein displayed eleven identically sized blue monochromes, each priced differently, to ‘focus attention on the sensitivity of artistic expression and the role of the audience.’ Then there are the paintings which form the centrepiece of the Liverpool retrospective: his Anthropometries, works made using nude female models smothered in blue paint as ‘living paint brushes’ while Klein – dressed in evening wear – directed their movements as they transferred a ‘material imprint of life’ directly on paper while musicians played his Monotone Symphony. Continue reading “Yves Klein at Liverpool Tate: vision of cosmic infinity – or a crock of shit?”

Matisse in Focus at Tate Liverpool: The Snail’s last outing

Matisse in Focus at Tate Liverpool: The Snail’s last outing

Matisse in Focus at Tate Liverpool brings together fifteen paintings from the Tate collection to provide an overview of the artist’s work across five decades. Its centrepiece is The Snail, the largest and most popular of Matisse’s cut-out works; after this show closes, it will never travel outside London again. Continue reading “Matisse in Focus at Tate Liverpool: The Snail’s last outing”

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”

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”

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000: how can we live free and ethically in an unfair society?

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000: how can we live free and ethically in an unfair society?


Alongside the Art Turning Left exhibition that I wrote about in my previous post, Tate Liverpool are screening a short season of films with a broadly left-wing political theme, each one introduced by a lecturer in Film Studies from Liverpool John Moores University.  After viewing the exhibition I joined a small group to see a film that I last saw more than a quarter of a century ago at the old Merseyside Film Institute downstairs at the Bluecoat in the heyday of independent film-making and intelligent screening programmes.

How would Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, the story of eight eight key characters, all in their twenties or thirties and affected  in some way by the events of May 1968 in Paris, stand up when viewed from the future that its makers looked toward?  All I could recall of the film was an image of the main characters sitting around a table, talking and laughing as they prepared vegetables for a meal.

Around the table

Sitting around a table, talking and laughing

Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature.
Before the Deluge, Jackson Browne

Now that I’ve seen Jonah again, I can see why that image stuck in my memory.  Amongst other things, it’s about the shared experience of a generation who rebelled against materialism, inequality and corporate greed, who yearned for sexual freedom and, in many different ways, attempted to change politics and society. It’s the least caricatured account – deeply serious, warm and witty – of my generation’s hopes and disillusion.  More than that: the film seems even more relevant now, seen from our standpoint in the new world order of the 21st century.

In my last post I described how the Art Turning Left exhibition posed a series of seminar-type questions about art and social change. If you wanted to reduce Jonah  to a single seminar question it might be: how can we live free and ethically in an unfree and unfair society?

Some of them knew pleasure
And some of them knew pain
And for some of them it was only the moment that mattered
And on the brave and crazy wings of youth
They went flying around in the rain
And their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered
And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
Before the Deluge, Jackson Browne

Daniel Cohn- Bendit, 22, one of the leaders of the ‘soixante-huitards’

Daniel Cohn-Bendit and other ‘soixante-huitards’

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 was made by Swiss film director Alain Tanner in collaboration with the writer, art critic and activist John Berger.  The script, which they wrote together, tells the story of eight people getting by in Switzerland, seven years after the greatest upheavals of May ’68, all of them trying, in diverse ways, to free themselves from the institutional and societal chains that oppress them. The film is bookended by quotations from Switzerland’s (least) favourite son, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, beginning with this:

All our wisdom consists in servile prejudices. All our practices are only subjection, impediment, and constraint. Civil man is born, lives, and dies in slavery. At his birth he is sewed in swaddling clothes; at his death he is nailed in a coffin. So long as he keeps his human shape, he is enchained by our institutions.

There used to be a phrase, back then in the 70s: ‘the long march through the institutions’.  While some, after the deluge of ’68, dropped out or went underground, many believed they could be agents of social change, working in areas of public service such as education, social work or health care.  Retired now, and looking back the years I taught in adult education, I like to think that my work made some contribution by making it possible for clever people denied opportunities to get a good education and a decent life.  In Jonah, it’s the character of Marco who represents this strand of the post-68 legacy:

It’s so simple. We work to earn a living. With our work, they make a profit. And with the strength left over, some of us try to fight the system. It’s simple. That’s how it is.

The eight characters in Jonah (whose names all just happen to begin with the letters Ma…) each try keep the rebellious spirit of ’68 alive; but, as the dreams of that false dawn fade and disillusion sets in, each is coming to terms with the realities of the 1970s in their own way.

Mathieu and Marco

Mathieu and Marco

Mathieu is a typesetter and union militant who has just lost his job in the ‘printing crisis’ as new technology is introduced.  His partner Mathilde works in a factory and looks forward to having a baby, the Jonah of the title. Searching for a new job, Mathieu meets Marguerite and Marcel, two organic market gardeners. They hire him to shovel the horse manure they use as fertilizer. Later, he abandons shit-shovelling and starts an alternative school for local kids in one of Marguerite’s greenhouses.

The organic farm owned by Marguerite and Marcel is at the heart of the film and invites echoes of the trilogy of novels that John Berger wrote between 1979 and 1990, Into Their Labours, which is set in the peasant farming community in the French Alps where Berger has lived on a smallholding for several decades. But there are key differences: the characters in Jonah are not peasants, but a bunch of bohemians and nonconformists, most of them more urban than rural.  Marcel is alienated from the machinations of humans and speaks eloquently of the unfathomable mystery of animals, especially whales.  Marguerite is a complex character, the least sympathetic of the film’s characters, who is committed to organic farming, whilst at the same time employs migrant Turkish workers and sells them sexual favours.

Max is a disillusioned Trotskyite currently working as a proofreader. Disillusioned, he has more or less abandoned  politics, but does take action when he learns of plans by a property speculator to buy land – ‘We’ll build luxury slums there’ – that includes Marguerite and Marcel’s smallholding. He makes copies of the documentation – obtained for him by the businessman’s secretary, Madeleine – and informs the residents of the threat to their homes and livelihoods.

For Max, ‘Politics are finished’. For the strikingly beautiful Madeleine, politics is irrelevant: she’s into Tantric sex. Max accepts her invitation to liberate himself through transcendent orgasm, ‘the explosion that opens the lotus on top of your head … the energies that join  to make the great emptiness.’ He enjoys the sex, but is sceptical of the philosophy: ‘I suspect you’re a jet-set hippie… Or else you’re looking for God’.

Madeleine and Max

Madeleine and Max

Although definitely flaky, Madeleine is given some good lines.  She tells Max:

Usually disillusion like yours comes around forty-five when hopes haven’t been fulfilled.  Men want history to go as fast as life. It doesn’t work that way. You complicate things, dividing them in two. Good and bad, useful and harmful. You think like a court a law, always judges and lawyers.  I’m whole and one: Death by fusion and dissolution in the universe.

Max’s response: ‘You’re hysterical. But I like you’.

We first meet Marco being introduced to his new class on the first day of a new job as a history teacher in a secondary school. Ceremoniously dropping the coiled length of a blood sausage on his desk, he invites a student to come forward and slice it up with his father’s butcher knife. Then, with the folds of the sausage now segmented, he launches into a lecture on history and the nature of time – how historians have divided time and how we experience time:

I’m going to talk about how the folds of time are made. In agricultural societies, time was thought to be cyclic. Each season repeated the same moment. Of course men aged. But only because they wore out. They were the fuel that made the seasonal machine work.

Capitalism brought the idea of the highway, the highway of time and progress. Progress means that the winners win not only the battle. They’ve also been chosen as intrinsically superior beings. Their superiority turned the cycles and seasons into a corkscrew; and the winners were the point of the corkscrew. With their point they opened the bottles of inferior cultures. Drinking till they had enough. Then they smashed the bottles.  A new kind of violence. Weapons had killed in the past, but now the verdict of history killed the winner’s history.

With this new violence came a new fear for the winners. Fear of the past. Fear of inferiors in their broken bottles. If the past caught up with the winners, it might show as little pity as they had shown. In the last century this fear became scientific. Time became a road with no bends. … And the road was marked with perfect regularity. Millions of years divided into eras, dates, days, working hours… clocking in clocking out like blood sausage.  Today the highway of capitalism is collapsing… for more reasons than I can tell you in this bit of sausage, this lesson.

Some things make holes in time. …Time bends so the holes coincide. Why are prophets misunderstood in their own time?  Because only half the holes are there. They’re between time. The holes prophets make to see the future are the same ones historians use to look at the past. The holes made by Rousseau today explain the 18th century.

In a review of Jonah for Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media in 1977, Robert Stam wrote:

Jonah explores the interwoven lives of these characters. It situates them within the social and economic landscape. We see the kind of work they do and witness their struggle to live a more human life in the face of bourgeois alienation. The eight central figures are simultaneously integrated into society, if only by the work they perform, and live outside of it. They are both in the mainstream and on the margins. Earning their daily bread in the capitalist kingdom of means, they have their eyes affixed and their ears attuned to a distant kingdom of ends. While few of them are explicitly leftist, their words and deeds suggest conscious and unconscious opposition to the system, an opposition which takes diverse forms – Mathieu’s union militancy, Marco’s anti-authoritarian pedagogy, Marie’s cash register sabotage, Madeleine’s ‘transgressions’, Marguerite and Marcel’s organic resistance to the land-grabbers, Mathieu’s alternative school.

Marco and Marie

Marco and Marie

Max’s lecture to his students summarise ideas in the postscript to John Berger’s novel Pig Earth, and it’s surely Berger’s influence which makes this film a meditation on time passing – how the world changes around us, and how we develop as individuals in our different ways and with our personal philosophies.

Max falls in love with Marie, a supermarket cashier who makes her contribution to evening out society’s inequalities by knowingly undercharging elderly customers.  Marie is a marginal character in the sense that, whilst she works in Switzerland, she is a native of France and so every evening, under Swiss law, she must return across the border.  She lives next door to a retired engine driver who she supplies with liberated groceries. The old train driver has a personal take on the nature of time:

Do you ever ride a train? What do you see? The landscape passing, like at the movies. I don’t go to the movies anymore. But, on the footplate, The landscape doesn’t pass by. You go into it. And into it. And into it. It’s like music. You go straight ahead, right to where the rails join.  And however far you go… They never join.

Later, after he has been sacked from his teaching job and begun work in an old peoples home, Marco observes that:

The old understand the value of time. When you have a lot, time is both future and past.  All memories are in the present. And all hopes too. But they don’t destroy the present.

In Revisioning Europe: The Films of John Berger & Alain Tanner, Jerry White writes:

Jonas is a film about the ways that time acts on everyone, and the responsibility that this action in turn demands of everyone: responsibility to the past (struggles and victories, half-forgotten though they may sometimes seem), responsibility to the present (to the people you live in community with now), responsibility to the future (to kids who are just being born, and whose experiences at the age on 25 can only be vaguely imagined).

Jonah was the last of three films written by John Berger in close collaboration with the leftist director Alain Tanner (the others were The Salamander (1971) and The Middle of the World, made in 1974). Berger and Tanner do not present us with a utopian vision: the consequence of Marie’s generosity of spirit is imprisonment, while Marco is sacked for his unorthodox teaching methods.  If anything, the film extols the virtues of stoicism and adaptability: like Rousseau in Emile who insists metaphorically that a child must be able ‘to brave opulence and poverty, to live, if he has to, in freezing Iceland or on Malta’s burning rocks’.  This is how to survive and preserve your individuality in a society that demands conformity.  In the film’s final scene, we see Mathieu on riding his bike on the way to work in the morning.  We hear his thoughts as he negotiates Geneva’s busy streets:

Oh Marguerite the witch, Oh Marco the philosopher, Oh Marie the thief, Oh Marcel the hermit, Oh Mathilde my love, Oh Max the former prophet, Oh Madeleine the mad … I’ll try to keep your hopes together so they don’t disappear.  I’m going back to work. I’ll be exploited. I’ll try to use your hopes as levers. I’m cold. I’m in the 20th century, Jonah. I’m only asked to keep quiet, to accept everything. I’m only permitted to do what I’m paid to do. I’m labour. Labour on its bicycle. Jonah, the game isn’t up. Look at our lives! From the day we learn to walk, to the day the army fires on thousands of us. From your first reading lesson to the last democratic decision: to yield nothing despite all threats. Will it be better for you? The better is systematically put aside. I say: nobody is to decide for us anymore. The first time nothing may happen. The tenth time there’ll be a committee. The hundredth time a strike, and another reading lesson for you, Jonah. As often as I ride to work…More. As many times as the days of my life.

Eight characters in search of liberation

Eight characters in search of liberation

In a an important sense the central character of this film is unseen (or seen just once, in a postscript dated 1980).  It’s Jonah, of course.  Mathilde’s pregnancy causes the film’s characters – and the viewer – to reflect on what kind of society Jonah might find himself in, in the year 2000. The boy will be called Jonah because his mother is ‘like a whale’. Mathieu says:

Jonah will come out of your womb. He fell out of the boat, the ship of fools we’re on. In the year 2000, Jonah will be 25. At 25, the century will disgorge him. Or vomit him up. The whale of history will disgorge Jonah, who will be 25 in the year 2000. That’s the time left to us to help him get out of the mess.

In the film’s last shot – now five years in the future – we see Mathilde, also heading to work.  She’s looks from the window of abus and sees the statue of Rousseau, who left Geneva at the age of 16, and who so irritated the city’s leaders that they burned his books. But later the city capitalized on his fame and erected the statue, which features a quotation from Emile, the last words we hear on the soundtrack.

In Emile, Rousseau portrays the education of Emile as a work in progress, believing that Emile should follow the truth that grows within himself rather than the rules imposed from without by society.  He writes:

Needs change according to men’s situations.  There is a great difference between natural man in nature and natural man in society. Emile is no savage to send to the wilderness. He is a savage made to live in cities.

Jerry White in Revisioning Europe: The Films of John Berger & Alain Tanner makes an interesting suggestion about how, in choosing this quote, Berger and Tanner highlight the connection between the land beyond the city where their characters have made a brief stand, and the city itself:

This, really, is the world of Jonah: Geneva. The countryside outside of its pale is part of this larger metropolitan existence, finally inseparable from it, regardless of whether people like Max succeed in derailing land speculation scams. The film is showing us here that Rousseau is really a harbinger of this modern consciousness, less an Arcadian poet with a fetish for primitivism than a thinker who was all too aware of the interconnectedness of wilderness and civilization.

Or, perhaps, it’s all contained in the words of one of the ‘two zeroes’, the two characters who seem to represent those labourers about whom Berger has written so much – peasants:

At six or earlier in summer you can hear birds sing. So many… As numerous as the headlines. They send messages all around us. They’re easy to hear if you don’t read the paper. But man has invented a terrible silence. Building it stone by stone, and no longer hears the messages around him. If he could hear them, he’d be a little encouraged.

Rousseau Geneva

In order to subject fortune and things to yourself, begin by making yourself independent of them. To reign by opinion, begin by reigning over it…. Freedom is found in no form of government; it is in the heart of the free man. He takes it with him everywhere.
– Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile

See also

Art Turning Left: a doctoral thesis on the gallery walls

Art Turning Left: a doctoral thesis on the gallery walls

Je participe

Je participe … Ills profitent: Atelier Populaire poster, Paris, May 1968

Visiting Art Turning Left, the current exhibition at Tate Liverpool, feels more like being asked to read a doctoral thesis that has done its darnedest to impress by referencing a wide range of esoteric sources alongside the obvious ones.  The exhibition subtitle – How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 – provides a hint that this will not simply be a display of left-wing art, rather that it is more concerned with questions about how socialist artists have tried (and still try) to change the way art is made and distributed in order to match their political and ethical principles.  A fair amount of the art on display is of dubious merit, some of it ephemera of only historical interest or curiosity value.  Nevertheless, there is much here to stimulate and intrigue.

Reinforcing the sense of attending a seminar, the exhibition (actually co-curated with Liverpool John Moores University) is not arranged chronologically, but thematically – divided into several sections that each begin with a question. The primary purpose of the art on display is to illustrate seven existential and philosophical questions about the relationship of art (and the artists who make it) to the struggle to change capitalist society.

At the outset the curators identify three core values common to left-wing ideologies: the belief in equality rather than hierarchy, the quest for social progress over the status quo, and the conviction that the benefits of collectivism and solidarity outweigh the advantages of competitive individualism.  The purpose of Art Turning Left is to explore how these values have affected the way that artists committed to them have approached the way in which they make their work.

So … let’s begin the seminar.

Banner for The Worker’s Union -  Solidarity of Labour, after Walter Crane c. 1898

Installation view: banner for The Worker’s Union, Holloway branch, ‘Solidarity of Labour’, after a design by Walter Crane, c 1898

Can art affect everyone?

Can art really be for everyone? The first thing you see as you enter the exhibition is an installation – dominated by a huge trade union banner – that suggests possible answers to this question.  Like the rest of the exhibition it creates incongruous juxtapositions of media, time and place.  Francesco Manacorda, artistic director of Art Turning Left, has explained how this particular installation attempts to show how the value of equality has led artists to utilise approaches like the:

Extraordinary use of public space (such as in the reproduction of Walter Crane’s images on union banners), by bringing art to a larger group of ‘users’ (for instance in the Bauhaus’ use of industrial production …), or using live performance and publications to stimulate the viewer as an active reader of art, as with Bertold Brecht’s theatre and poetry.

Walter Crane, whose design Solidarity of Labour’ is incorporated in the banner for The Worker’s Union that dominates the opening installation, was born in Liverpool and was famous in the late 19th century for his illustrations for children’s story books.  But he also illustrated socialist pamphlets and produced political cartoons for publications such as The Clarion.  Like his friend William Morris he was a member of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Walter Crane, Solidarity of Labour, 1889

Walter Crane, International Solidarity of Labour, 1889

Crane used his art for the advancement of socialist values and placed it at the service of the trade union movement.  Crane’s design ‘International Solidarity of Labour‘, depicting workers of all continents united, was adopted as a symbol of international unity and the power of collective action, and – until the onset of war in 1914 – was incorporated widely into trade union banners, such as the one displayed here.

Bertolt Brecht is well known for his theatrical technique of alienation, designed to encourage the theatre-goer to become an active participant rather than a passive viewer of a stage spectacle. Alongside examples on video, this installation also features from several collages from The War Primer,  a work which Brecht compiled during World War 2 and published in 1955. As in the theatre, Brecht aims to break the illusion of a standard photo collection by juxtaposing war photographs with poetry and captions that encourage readers to do more than glance at the images and to reflect on the brutality of war and its connection to capitalism.

Brecht Liverpool

Bertolt Brecht: collage from ‘The War Primer’

Among the selection from ‘The War Primer’ the curators have aptly chosen one collage in which Brecht has combined a photo of Liverpool, presumably taken from a German bomber during the wartime raids on the city.  The caption reads: ‘Liverpool harbour, England’s second biggest, is well-known to be the target of many German aerial bombardments and took many direct hits.  This photograph gives a clear picture of the harbour – the smoke at the top shows that it has just been visited by German bombers’. Beneath photo and caption, Brecht has added a few lines of poetry:

I am a city, but soon I shan’t be –
Where generations used to live and die
Before those deadly birds flew in to haunt me:
One thousand years to build.
A Fortnight to destroy.

Next to the Brecht we find examples of the work of the Modernist graphic designer, Gerd Arntz who was a leading member of the Gruppe progressiver Kunstler Koln (the Cologne Progressives), a radical group of artists who were active in the Weimar years.

Gerd Arntz, The Third Reich, 1934

Gerd Arntz, The Third Reich, 1934

The Cologne Progressives were active in communist trade unions, making prints and posters (usually from woodcuts or linocuts) that promoted worker’s revolution by calling for workers to abandon parliament and form worker’s councils.  Their goal was to use art at the service of the revolution, and to that end Arntz and his fellow artists invented a visual language able to communicate ideas visually to everyone, avoiding art elitism and designed for mass distribution.

Later, in collaboration with Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath, Arntz developed Isotype, a universal, transnational visual language of repeatable pictograms that could be used to address issues such as social inequality, exploitation and war – the forerunner of modern infographics.

The Third Reich is a prophetic vision of the Nazi regime then in its infancy. Hitler is at the top of a pyramid, above capitalists, military and judges. At a lower level, SA guard the concentration camps and employees work in armaments factories where the Communists are trying to inform them. Produced in 1934, Arntz said of the print:

The fact that the whole composition is a bit crooked, gives a ‘falling’ impression, is on purpose. The Third Reich wouldn’t last very long, I thought then.

Several examples are displayed from Society and Economy, a series Gerd Arntz worked on with Otto Neurath from  1925 to 1949.  In Strikes, against an abstract background of factories, raised red fists illustrate the post-war strike statistics for Great Britain, France and Germany.

Gerd Arntz, Strikes, 1930

Gerd Arntz, Strikes, 1930

In the photo of this installation (above) a gigantic photo of a man’s face stares out across the room.  This is an image from a series made in the 1970s by Braco Dimitrjevic called Casual Passer By.  The artist took photos of anonymous people which were then enlarged to monumental proportions and displayed in public places, such as on hoarding on public buildings.  The idea was to give the common man a status normally accorded to celebrities of historical figures, and to highlight the fickle nature of a society which glorifies famous people.

Braco Dimitrijevic, Casual Passer By, displayed at Trinity College Dublin, 2011

Braco Dimitrijevic, Casual Passer By, displayed at Trinity College Dublin, 2011

Do we need to know who makes art?

Now here’s something I recall well! A left-wing student at Liverpool University at the same time as the May events in Paris in 1968, I was enthralled by the posters that came out of Atelier Populaire, established by art students and protesters in the Ecole des Beaux Arts on 16 May with the aim of producing bold, uncompromising graphic art that expressed the defiance of workers and students whose protests seemed to bringing France to the point of revolution.

Atelier 2

A display of Atelier Populaire poster art

Hundreds of silkscreen posters – ‘weapons in the service of the struggle’ – were created anonymously and distributed for free. No one was allowed to sign the work and the gallery was the street where the posters were pasted for everyone to see. This was self-consciously art produced collectively rather than by a single person. The Atelier promoted the principle that everyone could come and produce art work. The silkscreen machines were there for everyone to use to express themselves.

Atelier 1

A display of Atelier Populaire poster art

Just two years later, in our own struggle against Liverpool University’s links to South African apartheid, we used the same methods as the Atelier to get our message across.

Can art infiltrate everyday life?

This question is one that is uppermost in the minds of revolutionaries, especially after they have achieved power.  In an ironic parallel to the utilisation of artists in the service of consumer advertising in capitalist society, the curators offer a response from avant-garde artists in post-revolutionary Russia. I must admit that Productivism was an ism that I hadn’t previously heard about – a movement of artists who advocated the move of ‘art into life’, arguing that the role of the artist was not to paint or sculpt, but to play an active role as co-workers in the factories helping to build a new world by designing objects which could be easily manufactured and which had a practical use in everyday life.

One such artist was Aleksandr Rodchenko who, in 1921, went into partnership with the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to offer what was, in effect, the services of an advertising consultancy to state enterprises suddenly facing competition from private enterprises that Lenin, in a reversal of Bolshevik policy triggered by food shortages and famine, had announced in the New Economic Policy.

Rodchenko and Mayakovsky designed posters or packaging for products such as cigarettes, bread, sweets and biscuits. Against those who condemned advertising as irredeemably capitalist, Mayakovsky argued that ‘it is necessary to employ all the weapons used by our enemies’. One example is displayed here: the design for an advertisement for the Moscow agricultural industry cafeteria, produced in 1923.

Aleksandr Rodchenko

Aleksandr Rodchenko, design for an advertisement for the Moscow agricultural industry cafeteria 1923

A more interesting example of Rodchenko’s work was a series of posters illustrating the history of the Bolshevik party, incorporating archival images, excerpts from newspapers and other documents. Rather than imposing an overarching narrative, Rodchenko’s design encouraged viewers to immerse themselves in the historical material, sift the evidence and make their own assessment.

Curiously, though there many examples in the exhibition of artworks from the early years of the Soviet Union, the curators have made no mention of the fate of many of the avant-garde artists who at first enthusiastically supported the revolution.  No mention, for instance, that towards the end of the 1920s, Mayakovsky became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking under Stalin, finally killing himself in 1930.

Alexander Rodchenko, History of the VKP(b), 1926

Alexander Rodchenko, History of the VKP(b), 1926

Does participation deliver equality?

If the ideal of creating art anonymously and collectively represents the rejection of the romantic and bourgeois notion that art is the the product of individual genius and self-expression, it follows that projects which encourage the widest participation in the process of making art must represent a means of achieving that ideal.  Art Turning Left offers several examples of schemes from different times and situations that have pursued this goal – not all of them convincing.  There is William Morris rejecting of mechanised production and establishing methods of  producing beautiful things such as textiles and wallpapers which avoided worker alienation by fusing craft values and artistry with modern production techniques. And there’s the Worker Photography Movement which mobilised amateur worker-photographers to document the social evils of capitalism in the 1930s.

Art Turning Left offers several other examples of schemes that have aimed to widen public participation in the making of art. Judge for yourself how convincing they are.

Deller 1

Display of examples from Folk Archive, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, 2000-2006

Folk Archive is a mixed media presentation from an archive compiled over six years by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane documenting ‘the rich and varied visual culture that exists in the UK outside of the art world which would not normally be seen in a gallery context’. Items displayed here are from the sections of the archive relating to Home, Performance and Politics, and include graffiti, painted eggs, costumes for village festivals and protest images. The central banner was made by Ed Hall who made banners in his garage during the 1980s for trade unions and political protests.

Folk Archive was acquired by the British Council in 2007 and has been made accessible to the public in the form of a self-contained touring exhibition and through an online virtual exhibition.


Ruth Ewen A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, 2011

Ruth Ewan’s installation, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, consists of  a jukebox that contains an ongoing archive of protest and political songs.  It is presented as a participatory work in that visitors are invited to browse through the pages of the index and select and play the music of their choice (!) while, in addition, Ewan  welcomes suggestions for songs to be added to the collection.

Jukebox 2

There’s a lady plays her favourite records
On the jukebox every day.
All day long she plays the same old songs,
And she believes the things they say. (The Kinks)

Arranged in categories such as, poverty, feminism, peace, civil rights, ecology and slavery are songs by a wide range of performers from different cultures and traditions. All of the songs address social issues, some directly political and related to specific subjects or events, whilst others are vaguely utopian or carry a universal message. Ewan describes her practice as being ‘conceptually led but socially realised’  with ‘audience participation and engagement’ playing an important part in the creation of her work.

As for me – I can’t see the difference between this and me making a playlist for my mp3 player and, like countless others, sharing it via social media.

My Room

 My Room, 1982, created at the Black-E community arts centre

My Room was created at Liverpool’s Black-E community arts centre in 1982 inspired by Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, and begun during a week long celebration of the centenary of Woolf’s birth.  Over the next six months, participants were invited to pick a space and create something to place in it which said, ‘This is my room!’

Hmmm… But then, I think, as I sceptically inspect this object, it was never intended to be an exhibit in an art gallery.  The same is true for a great many of the other exhibits here: their authors did not intend their work to be displayed in this way – indeed, in many cases, utterly rejected the idea on political grounds.  Which is what makes this exhibition such a curious experience, the thought constantly occurring that it would have made a better book.


William Morris, Rose and Thistle textile design, 1881

Can pursuing equality change how art is made?

From those pretty questionable examples, we move on to a more convincing set of exhibits that explore schemes to create equality of access to the means of artistic production and thereby increase the agency of ordinary people.

We’re on firm artistic ground with William Morris.  But, lest we forget, Morris was a Marxist and revolutionary. In How I Became a Socialist he wrote:

What I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH.

Morris believed that the most critical problem in capitalist society was the alienation of workers caused by the division of labour.  Who can gain any pleasure from work if it involves the endless repetition of the same monotonous movements? How can a worker feel any sense of pride in the job if they have no sense of how their actions contribute to the final product?  Who can feel other than cheated when the wage the boss pays isn’t enough to buy the thing you’ve helped to manufacture?

I accounted the greatest of all evils, the heaviest of all slaveries, that evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion, a toil which they shirk all they can– small blame to them. And this toil degrades them into less than men: and they will some day come to know it, and cry out to be made men again, and art only can do it, and redeem them from this slavery; and I say once more that this is her highest and most glorious end and aim; and it is in her struggle to attain to it that she will most surely purify herself, and quicken her own aspirations towards perfection.
– William Morris, Hopes and Fears for Art, 1880

From the 1860s, Morris, at first in partnership with Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others, established his own company to create and sell hand-crafted stained glass, carving, furniture, wallpaper, carpets and tapestries.  On display here is Rose and Thistle, a hand-printed design on cotton from 1881, and a wallpaper sample book from 1905, along with printing blocks.

The Morris Company was organised so that artists and craftsmen could work together with a common purpose, with every employee fulfilling their potential according to their level of ability.  Morris explained the political thought that underpinned Morris & Co in How I Became a Socialist:

The love and practice of art forced me into a hatred of the civilization which, if things were to stop as they are, would turn history into inconsequent nonsense, and make art a collection of the curiosities of the past, which would have no serious relation to the life of the present.

But the consciousness of revolution stirring amidst our hateful modern society prevented me, luckier than many others of artistic perceptions, from crystallizing into a mere railer against ‘progress’ on the one hand, and on the other from wasting time and energy in any of the numerous schemes by which the quasi-artistic of the middle classes hope to make art grow when it has no longer any root, and thus I became a practical Socialist. […]

Perhaps some … will say, what have we to do with these matters of history and art? We want by means of Social-Democracy to win a decent livelihood, we want in some sort to live, and that at once. Surely any one who professes to think that the question of art and cultivation must go before that of the knife and fork (and there are some who do propose that) does not understand what art means, or how that its roots must have a soil of a thriving and unanxious life. Yet it must be remembered that civilization has reduced the workman to such a skinny and pitiful existence, that he scarcely knows how to frame a desire for any life much better than that which he now endures perforce. It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before him, a life to which the perception and creation of beauty, the enjoyment of real pleasure that is, shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread, and that no man, and no set of men, can be deprived of this except by mere opposition, which should be resisted to the utmost.

Morris’s ‘true ideal’ was set forth in the utopian vision of  News From Nowhere, the novel written by Morris and initially published by his Kelmscott Press in 1893.  There’s a copy here, open at the frontispiece to display its woodblock title page, ornamental lettering and typeface.

NFN Morris

News From Nowhere, Kelmscott Press edition, 1893

The Worker Photography Movement began in Germany and the USSR in the early 1930s before spreading across Europe and the United States.  The movement spread through Communist-affiliated groups, and encouraged worker-photographers to expose, in a ‘hard and merciless light’, the iniquities and social ills of capitalism:

Photography has become an outstanding and indispensable means of propaganda in the revolutionary class struggle.

AIZ Magazine, 1931

AIZ Magazine, no 38, 1931: 24 Hours in the life of a family working in Moscow

The display presents examples, from Germany and the United States, of the kinds of photo essays which the movement’s worker-photographers produced.  They reminded me of some of the best of the photo spreads in Picture Post magazine in the 1940s and early 1950s.  I’d like to see more of this work.

How can art speak with a collective voice?

The curators respond to this question with examples of projects which have sought to express or document the collective experience, rather than that of the individual.  The best-known example is that of Mass Observation, the British movement of the 1930s which aimed to produce a collective picture of British society which was ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’. The pioneering social survey organization was founded by Tom Harrison, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings (who compiled Pandaemonium, the documentary history of the Industrial Revolution that, decades later, was the inspiration behind Opening Ceremony for the London Olympic Games, crafted by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce) with the aim of producing an anthropology of the British people and giving a voice to the under-privileged and often ignored working classes.

On show here is documentation from the project which among a wide variety of methodologies, asked people to keep diaries of their daily routines, and employed teams of anthropological observers instructed to observe behaviours such as:

the behaviour of people at war memorials; shouts and gestures of motorists; the aspidistra cult; bathroom behaviour; beards, armpits and eyebrows; anti-Semitism; the distribution of the dirty joke; female taboos about eating….

Humphrey Spender, This is Your Photo, 1937

Humphrey Spender, This is Your Photo, 1937

There are examples of the photographs which Humphrey Spender took in Bolton for Mass Observation, including one of chalked graffiti in a wall, entitled This Is Your Photo. Mass Observation was interested in graffiti because it could be seen as a type of primitive art.

Then there are a couple of the paintings made by Julian Trevelyan while he was working for Mass Observation in Bolton.  Trevelyan was the first artist to be recruited by Mass Observation in 1937. In Bolton Trevelyan recorded his observations of ordinary people going about their lives in photographs, water-colours and collage. In his autobiography, he recalled carrying with him a suitcase of scraps and magazines, scissors and glue to his chosen site. He would work on the spot, battling with the elements and often attracting attention of inquisitive passers-by.

Rubbish May be Shot Here 1937 by Julian Trevelyan 1910-1988

Julian Trevelyan, Rubbish May be Shot Here, 1937

The locals commented that he had caught the mood of current anti-litter campaigns in Rubbish May be Shot Here and accurately conveyed ‘the worker versus royalty feeling’ of Coronation year.  Most of the cut-out heads in this collage are taken from newspaper photographs of the coronation or represent successive generations of the royal family. The smiling child, however, is taken from a Shredded Wheat advertisement captioned ‘the food for general fitness’.  Trevelyan contributed three paintings to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London 1936, and this collage follows the classic surrealist technique of combining different realities. Rubbish May be Shot Here is, the curators suggest, ‘revolutionary in both form and content: hierarchies are subverted, pomp and pageantry ridiculed.

Office of Useful Art

The Office of Useful Art: rules to live by

In an adjacent small room is the Office of Useful Art which I learn promotes the new movement of Arte Util or Useful Art. The Office is not an art installation but a working room that acts as part of a long term campaign to develop a renewed understanding of art, as a process that plays a fundamental role in shaping the world; that has a real effect in peoples lives. The project is a collaboration with Grizedale Arts, based in the Lake District, and Liverpool John Moores University – part of a five year project with the Internationale Confederation of European Museums.  The Office will function as a recruitment centre for the Association de Arte Util (Association of Useful Art), with the aim of developing an active community of people committed to art that works to effect change and is valued for what it does.

Are there ways to distribute art differently?

In her review for the Observer, Laura Cumming notes that Art Turning Left ‘asks whether art can find alternative distribution systems outside the market and gallery circuit, and then presents a wall of almost parodically obscure artist-run newspapers as if this was any kind of answer’.

True, but that frustrating room also contains the exhibition’s one true masterpiece which is presented also as a convincing historical answer to the question, ‘Are there ways to distribute art differently?’

David, Marat

Jacques-Louis David and studio, The Death of Marat, 1793. ‘n’ayant pu me corrompre ils m’ont assassine’: ‘they could not bribe me, they murdered me’.

Painted in the months after Marat’s murder, David’s work has been described as the first modernist painting, for the way it ‘took the stuff of politics as its material, and did not transmute it’.

Not by pleasing the eye do works of art accomplish their purpose. The demand now is for examples of heroism and civic virtues which will electrify the soul of the people and arouse in them devotion to the fatherland.
– Jacques Louis David

Created in response to the murder of the uncompromising political theorist and journalist Jean-Paul Marat in 1793, David’s painting became an iconic image of the French revolution. With the artist’s permission, the painting was copied in oil and reproduced in engravings that were distributed throughout the land. It is probable that the painting on display in the Tate is one of the copies, and examples of the engravings made of Marat’s head are shown alongside.


The Tate welcomes fellow socialists!

Seminar over and with my brain screaming, ‘Enough!’, I made my way down to the foyer where I noticed the Tate’s welcome sign. Has it been adapted specially for this show – or has it always had this radical edge?  A relaxing lunch followed, and then I went to one of the film screenings that accompanies this exhibition.  It was Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, directed by Alain Tanner and scripted by Tanner and John Berger in 1975.  I hadn’t seen the film  – which follows eight key characters, all in their twenties or thirties, and affected  in some way by the events of May 1968 – since it first came out.  But – more about that in my next post.

See also

Chagall: Modern Master at Liverpool Tate

Chagall: Modern Master at Liverpool Tate

‘When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is’
– Pablo Picasso

Well, yes: colour, but also a deep sense of spirituality, of his Jewish heritage and the suffering of his people, a rootedness in Russian folklore and primitive art; an openness to love and joy, the magical, and the ‘logic of the illogical’.  All these aspects of Marc Chagall’s work are on display at Tate Liverpool’s superb exhibition, Chagall: Modern Master, which I’ve only just caught up with, near the end of its run. Continue reading “Chagall: Modern Master at Liverpool Tate”

Turner Monet Twombly: To be beautiful

Turner Monet Twombly: To be beautiful

In my appreciation of Robert Hughes the other day, I quoted Hughes as maintaining that the purpose of art is:

To be beautiful. To manifest beauty. People need beauty.  There’s a hunger for it.

Well, there’s plenty of beauty on show at Tate Liverpool’s exhibition Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings, and, judging by the throngs filing through the rooms, a great deal of hunger for it, too.

This is a truly impressive show, awash with brilliant Turners and featuring a selection of Monets that will probably not be seen again together in the UK for many a year (there are five of his water lily paintings, two of which haven’t been in this country before).  Indeed, as someone remarked (I can’t remember where I read it), it’s like a very good Monet exhibition constantly interrupted by Turners and Twomblys. I’m not sure I agree – I think Turner gives Monet a pretty good run for his money here.  But Twombly?  I admit that before this exhibition I knew next to nothing about Twombly, so the title had a kind of falling to bathetic sound, especially having seen Turner Whistler Monet at Tate Britain in 2005 which had a decidedly more convincing ring to it.

I’ll admit, too, that my reaction at first on seeing the first Twombly of the exhibition – Untitled 1992, a canvas splattered with dabs, doodles, and lines scrawled in a childish hand – was probably akin to the hostile scepticism  that greeted many of the Monets present here when they were first exhibited, with expletives added.

But, though I still didn’t leave the exhibition wholly convinced about Twombly – at least up against Turner and Monet – I did begin to have an understanding of his technique and his intentions – and of the thinking behind the show.  The Tate describes the exhibition as a centuries long conversation between the three painters, ‘questioning and challenging each other as though each were present in the same room at the same time’ and demonstrating that these artists, for different, often very personal reasons, continually returned to the same themes and techniques:

Through the juxtaposition of their work, the exhibition also aims to underline the modernity and undiminished relevance of Turner’s and Monet’s work while simultaneously revealing the strong classical traits in Twombly’s paintings and sculptures.

The hanging is austere: there are no information panels. If you want to understand the exhibition’s logic you will need to read the gallery guide or pick up an audio guide. Otherwise you will be faced with a succession of startling visual juxtapositions, for the arrangement is not chronological, but thematic.

The exhibition begins on the ground floor with a room devoted to the first of seven organising ideas.  In ‘Beauty, Power, Space’ the aim is to show how each of these three artists have expressed the sublime. Edmund Burke defined the sublime as anything that excites ideas of terror, pain or peril in the mind of a person who is safe in the knowledge that they are not in fact subjected to danger, while Ruskin declared the sublime to be ‘the effect of greatness upon feelings… whether of matter, space, power, virtue or beauty’.  So here, on one wall, is Turner’s The Parting of Hero and Leander, while  displayed directly opposite is Twombly’s painting of the same name. In the myth, Leander drowns as he swims across the Hellespont to visit his lover, Hero, and the paintings in this room are an expression of awe or terror when faced with the sublime power and beauty of the sea.

There’s another strand of the conversation at work here, too.  This pairing reveals that both Turner and Twombly  engaged with history and mythology. The epic themes addressed by Turner include the stories of Dido and Ulysses, whilst Twombly’s works include allusions to the myths of Bacchus and Orpheus.  And, just as Twombly adds handwritten words on his canvases to complement the visual references, so Turner also incorporated text in the form of verse which he exhibited alongside some of his paintings.

Jeremy Lewison, the curator of the exhibition, explained the concept in the Tate magazine:

Quoting the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Twombly inscribes Untitled 1992 with the words ‘outside, an Amazing Space on the other Side of AIR’, suggesting the vastness of the universe beyond the air that we breathe. This large-scale painting, in which a highly inflected surface of white and grey with touches of red and blue evokes sky and sea, seems to take up where Turner left off in a painting such as Rockets and Blue Lights (close at Hand) to warn Steam-Boats of Shoal-Water, where the evident power of nature is pitted against a foundering sailing boat. Both artists suggest the immensity of nature and the inconsequence of man before it. At the top of Twombly’s painting is an inscription from Charles Baudelaire’s Journaux intimes, ‘I have felt the wings of the wind of madness,’ which, in the original source, follows hard on a passage where Baudelaire discusses his fear of the void.

The next theme to be examined is ‘Atmosphere’: Turner once said, ‘Atmosphere is my style and indistinctness is my fault’.  When Turner died in 1851 he left several unfinished paintings in his studio. With the hindsight gained from Impressionism, these paintings have come to be appreciated as highly as his finished works – appreciated, indeed, as if they are finished works.

In The Thames above Waterloo Bridge c.1830–5, Turner shrouds the river in a blanket of pollution, with chimneys belching out smoke. In their late works, both Turner and Monet played with simultaneously obscuring and revealing the image. In Turner’s unfinished view of Venice with the Salute 1840–5, the city can barely be distinguished as it emerges from the delicate shimmer of a morning mist.

Similarly, Waterloo Bridge, Monet’s painting of 1902, depicts the bridge as hardly visible in the dense London fog, a splash of pink late afternoon sunlight illuminating the Thames before it.  Monet painted London in the winter specifically to capture the visual effects of the city’s polluted air. Waterloo Bridge Pink Effect is as pure a study of the fall of light on cloud, stone and water as you will ever encounter.

Challengingly, these works are displayed alongside Twombly’s Orpheus (1979), the exhibition guide noting that ‘the mist obscures the name of the eponymous hero who, in the Orphic myth, travelled to the underworld to retrieve his wife Eurydice, who is perhaps also alluded to here by the small letters ‘eu’.

Twombly’s Paesaggio 1986 (below) is positioned with Monet’s Morning on the Seine, Giverny 1897 (top), encouraging us to see how both contrast woodland and water and explore effects of light.

The ‘Fire and Water’ section gathers paintings – several of sunrise and sunset – that reflect the artists’ attempts to capture the mood evoked by a particular quality of light.  In Houses of Parliament, Sun Breaking Through Fog, 1904, Monet reveals the how sunlight reflected on the surface of the Thames is refracted by the morning mist. He’s reacting to Turner’s own similar attempts and later Twombly (who included a Monet exhibition catalogue amongst his prized possession) continues the experiment.

Monet is known to have seen Turner’s paintings in the London galleries with Camille Pissarro during their stay in 1871, and then on subsequent visits over the following decades.  Monet shared Turner’s fascination with light and the effects of the elements, though his interest was motivated less by drama and romanticism than a desire to capture nature as he experienced it. He observed and recorded his subject matter systematically and objectively, often returning to the same motif again and again to paint it in different atmospheric conditions (for example, the façade of Rouen cathedral – a couple of studies of which are in this exhibition).

The drama and romanticism of Turner’s approach is revealed in the crashing surf, burst of white rockets and glow of blue lights in Rockets and Blue Lights, which, like so many of Turner’s late paintings – such as Rough Sea painted in the early 1840s – represents the elemental forces of nature.

Breakers on a Flat Beach (below) derives from the late 1820s, the period when Turner made regular visits to the then-fashionable resort of Margate.  There, he particularly prized the coastal light, claiming that the skies over the Isle of Thanet were the most beautiful in Europe.

Similarly, Monet had an intense and long-lasting relationship with the Normandy coast.  The canvases he
painted at Fécamp, Pourville, Varengeville and Etretat between 1881 and 1886 came to form a major part of his output. In these locations, he positioned himself as the solitary explorer, face to face with the elements, his canvases increasingly preoccupied with the fleeting effects of weather and atmosphere. Many of his visits were out of season enabling him to record more hostile weather conditions and rougher seas.  The Sea at Fécamp places the viewer close to an overhanging rock face where the sea pounds the cliff. Curving brushstrokes of blue, green and white build to form the lines of waves moving towards the cliff. The spray is a flurry of lighter, more tangled marks as the water breaks over the more densely painted rock.

Opposite, is a wall on which are displayed five small oil paintings by Turner from the 1840s.  These paintings, as delicate and ethereal as watercolours, are exquisite.   Their titles, when listed, read like lines of a poem:

sea and sky
ship in a storm
red sky over a beach
shore with breaking waves
calm sea with distant grey clouds

In the section entitled ‘Naught so Sweet as Melancholy’, the curators have brought together some of Turner’s late Venetian paintings, executed after his final trip to Venice in 1840, with Monet’s paintings of the same city, begun on a trip with his second wife Alice in 1908.  Many of Monet’s canvases were only finished after the death of Alice in 1911, when Monet returned to them as a way to come to terms with his loss.

The centrepiece of ‘The Seasons’ is Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni, painted 1993–5.  These four panels were where I began to appreciate Twombly. I liked these paintings with their echoes of Chinese landscapes, and their colours reflecting emotion.  In this sequence Twombly mourns the passing of time and youth, but celebrates life.  Like many poets and painters before him Twombly links the progress of the year with the life cycle, each season representing a different stage in life.

Here the seasons are hung in a different order, beginning with Autumn (above) to reflect the cyclical nature of life; this was a suggestion, the exhibition guide notes, that Twombly welcomed in discussions with the curator shortly before his death last year.  Autunno (Autumn), ‘drenched in the colours of harvested grapes, marks the moment of panic, when winter begins to draw in and mortality rears its head’. The reds and burgundies of Autumno, deep and saturated, suggest the season of ripeness and maturity.

Primavera (Spring) ‘conjures the energy of plants springing into life and is full of vigour’. Fiery Estate (Summer, above) is tinged with the knowledge that – in lines from George Seferis embedded in the paint – ‘youth is infinite and yet so brief’. Inverno (Winter) is sparse and cold, like evergreens in snow with ‘ forms and words dissolving in silvery tones’.  Twombly incorporates into these panels lines from Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegy, while in Estate, lines from George Seferis’s ‘Three Secret Poems’ have been altered by Twombly, with the words inked on the canvas in Twombly’s inimitable, childish scrawl:

the shard of white . . .
trembling with white light
with white flat sea
distant in memory
between the deluge of life
our dearest, our white youth
our white, our snow white youth
that is infinity . . .

Monet also recorded seasonal changes in his series of poplars in the 1890s, paintings imbued with a strong sense of time.

The final section, ‘A Floating World’, is dominated by Monet’s late paintings of the water lily pond in his garden at Giverny.The exhibition guide comments:

Painted during the First World War and after a period of intense mourning, a sense of human mortality pervades them by contrast with the everlasting endurance of nature. Time appears to stand still in these paintings although glints of sunlight reflected on the surface of the pond imply the time of day. Surrounded by paintings in his studio, Monet created his own consoling world, to heal the psychic pain of bereavement.

Here, too, are Turner’s studies for the commission by Lord Egremont, owner of Petworth House in Sussex.

They make little distinction between water and sky, as all dissolves in the diminishing glow of the sun. Trees and shrubs collapse into patches of paint and the whole becomes a liquefied mass. The Petworth paintings were begun either shortly before or shortly after his father’s death. Their emphasis on the setting sun may also express intimations of mortality. The final paintings have a certain air of despondency. These images remind the viewer once again of finality and provide another link to Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni, and its classical reference to death: ‘Et in Arcadia ego.’

Alongside these masterpieces we find Twombly’s monumental painting Untitled 2007, that appears to depict peonies, although Twombly apparently disclaimed the idea. The guide notes:

The peony is associated with Japanese Edo-period screen paintings and, like such a screen, Twombly’s painting is split into panels. The red paint trickles down the canvas, like blood or tears. Transience and regret are central themes in this work, but it is also a hymn to sunlight, sexuality, and regeneration. A Japanese haiku on the right evokes the erotic and the morbid, exuberance and joy.

On the panel, Twombly quotes Takarai Kikaku, whose haiku was inspired by the 14-century samurai Kusunoki Masashige:

Ah! The peonies
For which
Took off his armour

Presumably the beauty of nature, epitomized here by the wild peony, inspired a momentary pacifism in the warrior.

Jonathan Jones, in an article in The Guardian, commented on the dangers of positioning Twombly’s work within range of Monet’s:

The curator has hung some splashy, multicoloured splurges next to ravishing Monet garden scenes. Never work with children, animals, or Claude Monet. The quiet Frenchman is a great upstager. […]  Near Twombly’s Four Seasons hangs an utterly scintillating flower painting by Monet. It seems to have more colours in one spot of its surface than Twombly can muster across an entire epic. You do not need the Hellespont to drown in: Monet’s pond is deep enough.

Absolutely.  Having said that, I did leave with a higher appreciation of Twombly’s work.  I just don’t think it measures up to the other two, though.

Here’s a slideshow of the paintings I enjoyed most in the exhibition

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See also

TateShots: Three Champions For Turner Monet Twombly

This film explores the parallels in their style and subject matter with Mike Leigh, who describes Turner as the world’s first modern painter, and who is in the process of developing a feature film on the artist; Fiona Rae, a painter herself, who reveals how astonishing Monet’s works were for their time; and Tate director Nicholas Serota, who considers why certain artists, on reaching the twilight of their careers, develop a new-found sense of freedom in their work.

There’s also a video on the Liverpool Daily Post website where Tate’s Assistant Curator, Eleanor Clayton, discusses the exhibition.

Magritte: a mixed pleasure

The Dominion of Light (MoMa)

In our student days it was de rigueur to have a Magritte reproduction on your wall – maybe the locomotive emerging from the fireplace, or the pipe that wasn’t a pipe.  As a legacy of those time we still have an Athena block-mounted print of Dominion of Light hanging in the house (the one that was adapted for the LP cover of Jackson Browne’s Late For the Sky). As I made my way to Tate Liverpool to see the exhibition, Rene Magritte: The Pleasure Principle, I wondered whether, now that I’m older and grumpier, his paintings would amount to much more than a series of arresting images.

The first thing to be said about this exhibition is that a great many of those arresting images are present and correct.  It’s still raining men in Golconda, the easel remains standing before the landscape it appears to absorb in The Human Condition, and the lovers, shrouded and separate, continue to kiss in The Lovers.  Despite their familiarity, these images retain the power to grab your attention.  But at the same time, much of what is on display is tiresome and repetitive, and in some cases so bad that it’s downright embarrassing.

Magritte one-night-museum-1927
One Night Museum, 1927

The first painting you see when you enter the exhibition is One-night Museum 1927, which introduces some of the characteristic elements of Magritte’s practice – the representation of objects in disconcertingly contrasting sizes, the metamorphosis of inert materials to living matter, the suggestion of a staged performance behind a curtain, and the deadpan presentation of ordinary, everyday activities in extraordinary circumstances.

Let Out of School, 1927

Other paintings on display in this first section – such as Let Out of School 1927, The Beneficial Promise 1928 and The Secret Player 1927 –  illustrate the same concerns.  The following section probes the ‘surreal encounter’ in Magritte – a key concern in Magritte’s early Surrealist painting, expressed in works in which the figure meets itself or is replicated. Magritte often used a split panel composition to create a fantastical and uncanny scenario, as in Man Reading a Newspaper 1928.  According to the Tate guide, such ‘doublings’ were important to the Surrealists, who regarded repetition as an expression of repressed traumatic experience or sexual urges. Hmmm…

Man Reading a Newspaper 1928

Equally important for Magritte was the appropriation of imagery from popular culture, including film posters and the murder mystery genre. Like other Surrealists, Magritte was a fan of Fantômas, a fictional crime character popular from film and serialised pulp novels. The impenetrable black figure seen in The Torturing of the Vestal Virgin 1927 alludes to the Fantômas character whilst The Lovers 1928 – a genuinely great and disturbing painting – appropriates an image from a Nick Carter detective comic.

The Lovers 1928

Magritte’s work largely consisted of a philosophical inquiry that questioned the nature of representation, and painting in particular.  He argued that an abstract shape or a word could legitimately replace the image of an object:

An object is never so closely attached to its name that another cannot be found that suits it better.

It was for this reason that Magritte wrote ‘This is not a pipe’ below the image of what incontrovertibly is the epitome of a pipe in The Treachery of Images in 1935.  Magritte once said of this painting:

I’ve been criticised enough for it! Yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation. So if I had written ‘This is a pipe’ below the picture, I would have been lying.

The Treachery of Images 1935

Similar questions seem to pervade The Delights of Landscape 1928, which also seems to me to contain a pretty good joke about how some may take their pleasure in the landscape rather differently to others.

The Delights of Landscape 1928

In other works Magritte took this philosophy further, presenting  an object that conceals what lies behind it to portray his idea of the ‘hidden visible’, that there are things we know to exist but cannot see.  In The Human Condition 1933, Magritte

conceals part of the image, the scene outside a window, yet simultaneously reveals the hidden picture element, creating for the viewer a condition of ‘false recognition’. The graphic painting style imbues the work with a sense of deadpan plausibility, heightening its visual duplicity.
(Exhibition guide)

René Magritte's The Human Condition

There are many paintings like this, pursuing the same questions about the truthfulness of images. Magritte sought to cast doubt on the principle of reality and on status of painting itself, challenging the Renaissance concept of the painting as a ‘window on reality’.  Always he is confronting us with the idea that, far from representing nature, painting is about artifice and illusion.  In The Human Condition, there seems to be no difference between ‘depicted’ and ‘real space.  The situation is complicated further by the fact that the image as a whole is fabricated.

Key To The Fields 1936

Provocatively hung nearby is Key to the Fields 1936 that takes a similar fabricated illusion and shatters it before our eyes. The window appears broken, the shards lying in front. But can this be a window, when the landscape beyond remains imprinted on the shards? In this painting, Magritte shatters an illusion whilst at the same time creating another.

The next gallery is devoted to ‘The Monumental Image’.  Here, Magritte’s belief in the power of poetic thought to transform everyday reality is explored in a series of paintings he made from the 1950s on that contained monumental imagery.  These paintings often feature solitary boulders – objects chosen for their lack of symbolic significance.  Speakng of The Glass Key 1959, Magritte described the boulder that sits improbably on a mountain top as ‘absent of thought – the absolute’.

The Glass Key 1959

Next, there’s a room devoted to ‘The Man in the Bowler Hat’ – Magritte’s self-portraits and the late bowler hat paintings that reintroduce the figure of the man in a bowler hat, dark coat and with blank demeanour seen in earlier paintings such as The Menaced Assassin 1927. Magritte wished to present an ‘anonymous’ image of himself to the world, and for him the ordinary suit and bowler hat represented the anonymous everyman and were a comment on the absurdity of everyday life.

Golconda 1953

Later we encounter the painting that provides the overall title of the exhibition – The Pleasure Principle 1937.  It’s a portrait of the patron Edward James (the man who also commissioned Time Transfixed, the painting that depicts a locomotive emerging from a fireplace in his London home).  The portrait is based on a photo by Man Ray, and the title refers to the Freudian premise that humans by their actions will always seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Amusingly, the Tate caption states that by obscuring the subject matter, Magritte literally keeps the viewer in the dark.

The Pleasure Principle 1937

The exhibition ends with a room entitled The Dominion of Light that explores how Magritte’s images often explore the reconciliation of opposites as a means to induce the ‘shock to the system’ that enables the perception of what he regarded as a mysterious and poetic reality.The centrepiece of this section is a display of several versions of The Dominion of Light.  From 1949 onwards, Magritte produced seventeen versions in oil and ten gouaches of The Dominion of Light. Whilst there are differences between the versions, the subject is always the same: a nocturnal street scene set against a blue afternoon sky. It remains one of Magritte’s most enigmatic and celebrated images.  Discussing it in 1956 Magritte said:

This evocation of night and day seems to me to have the power to surprise and delight us. I call this power ‘poetry’. The reason why I believe the evocation to have this poetic power is, amongst other things, because I have always felt the greatest interest in night and day, without however having any preference for one or the other.’

There is much to enjoy and ideas to ponder in this exhibition.  But there is also a great deal in Magritte’s work that is wearisome and repetitive. The ‘vache’ paintings – his angry response to being cold-shouldered by the Parisian surrealists after the Second World War – should just have been destroyed after he got over the tantrum.  The exhibition also devotes space to examples of his work as a commercial artist and rarely seen photographs and home movies sot by Magritte.  There is nothing of great interest in these displays.  As for his 1946 drawings for Madame Edwarda, an erotic novel by the French Surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille, they struck me as little more than the puerile daubings of an immature schoolboy.

James Hall wrote in The Guardian:

There is indeed something pathetic about Magritte’s later work and career: from the 1930s an increasing part of his production was making copies of his most popular works, as well as forgeries of artists such as Picasso and Ernst, and portraits. When the Germans invaded Belgium in 1940, he decided that people needed cheering up and so, until 1947, he painted lurid soft-porn pastiches of late Renoir. In 1948, he tried his hand at a comic-strip fauvism – his “vache” (cow) paintings – before returning to making variations on his standard themes. He became famous for the first time in the late 1950s, when his classic work chimed with pop art, and later, with conceptual art. It was then that he marketed himself to the wider world as the “ordinary man in the bowler hat, suit and tie” who just happened to paint extraordinary pictures.


Picasso: Peace and Freedom

Picasso Hands Entwined

‘Painting is not made to decorate houses. It is an instrument of offensive and defensive war against the enemy.’
– Picasso, 1943

With J this afternoon to see this year’s Tate Liverpool blockbuster exhibition, Picasso: Peace and Freedom, which documents Picasso’s engagement with politics in the Cold War era and how he negotiated the ideological and aesthetic orthodoxies of East and West. The exhibition is built around the works he made from the period of the Second World War to his death. These were the years when he aligned himself  very clearly with the Communist Party and was politically active in the sense of creating artwork and making donations, primarily to promote the cause of international peace.

This is an unusual exhibition in that these works are not often shown together (for a the very good reason that most of them are not that good) but also because a large proportion of the extensive displays consist of historical materials, such as posters, photographs, magazines and newspapers, and a variety of political ephemera.  These help tell the story of Picasso’s political engagement, and are more interesting than a good deal of the artwork on display.

Picasso joined the Communist party in 1944 and remained a member right up to his death in 1973. Though Stalin despised modern art, as far as Picasso was concerned the communists had been enemies of the fascists and many of his friends were members of the French Communist party.

‘These terrible years of oppression have taught me that I must fight, not only with my art but with my person…While I wait for the day when Spain can once again receive me, the Communist party of France has opened its arms’. (Picasso, 1944)

At the height of his involvement, Picasso toured Europe to promote the international peace movement (regarded as a communist front in America and the UK), gave large donations to many communist causes, including the French CP, and produced a huge quantity of emblems, posters and portraits for communist publications on demand. His dove became the ubiquitous symbol of peace – so much so that there is an entire gallery devoted to his dove designs.

On the face of it, Picasso’s unwavering support for the CP is disquieting.  Even during the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, he would not condemn the aggression, despite an open appeal from the great Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, and despite the pleas of a group of former students “to do for Budapest what you have done for Guernica: Help us!”.

Yet there is also evidence from this exhibition that what really motivated Picasso politically,  from Guernica onwards, was a deep commitment to peace, international understanding and equality. And that he held unwaveringly to his own artistic and moral principles, despite pressure and criticism from party apparatchiks.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Picasso was actively involved in the communist-supported International Peace Movement and attended congresses in Poland, Italy and England (he was the only international intellectual allowed into the UK by the Labour government for the Sheffield Peace Conference in 1950; he consequently refused to attend the event). In 1950 he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, but his art was not generally approved by the Communist Party. Picasso avoided using overtly communist symbolism in his work and refused to work in the socialist realist style favoured by the party. He was criticised for not being obvious enough in his accusations of American aggression in
paintings such as Massacre in Korea 1951 (not in the exhibition), which depicted a group of naked women and children being fired at by a group of helmeted, but anonymous soldiers.

Picasso Massacre in Korea 1951

The lithograph, Dove 1949 was chosen for the poster of the Paris Peace Congress that year.  It became the symbol of the Peace Congresses and was also adopted as an international Communist emblem.

Picasso Peace poster 1949

Though the dove was already a biblical symbol of peace, Picasso’s dove – ‘swift and elegant, it is a flight of a drawing in itself’ (Laura Cumming, The Observer) – became the quintessential image for the peace movement during the Cold War.

Picasso Dove with olive branch

Picasso Colombe de l'avenir

The one truly great ‘political’ work that Picasso created in this period is the War and Peace mural for the deconsecrated chapel in the Communist-governed village of Vallauris, near his home in the south of France in 1951-52. I’ve seen it there twice now, and it’s a wonderful work.  Although the present exhibition includes a selection of studies for War and Peace, it’s a pity that the curators were unable to show visitors larger reproductions of the murals than the two postcard-sized ones on display.

Picasso painted the two large murals on panels to be fixed directly onto the walls. He later added another painting to the small end wall, composed of figures from the four corners of the world united in peace, painted in black, white, yellow and red.

Peace is a pastoral derived from Picasso’s painting Joie de Vivre (The Joy of Life) of 1946 (below). Mothers and children play around the central figure of Pegasus pulling a plough, personifying the fertile world of peace. War depicts a horse-drawn chariot against a frieze of carnage and a monumental figure with a blood-stained sword. The god of war in the chariot carries a vessel from which giant bacteria and a sack of skulls emerge. The figure of peace in the War panel carries a shield bearing Picasso’s symbol of peace, the dove.

The exhibition begins with a room dominated by the most significant painting here: The Charnel House of 1944-5. Because of his international reputation, Picasso was largely left alone during the Nazi Occupation of Paris despite being the most famous artist working in a so-called ‘degenerate’ style. The German occupiers tried to win over French intellectuals with offers of extra food and coal, but Picasso refused the bribes, defiantly declaring: ‘A Spaniard is never cold’.

Pablo Picasso The Charnel House, 1944–1945

The Charnel House 1945 is Picasso’s most overtly political painting since Guernica of 1937. It was based on a short documentary film about a Spanish Republican family who were killed in their kitchen. Picasso, who had lost many friends and associates during the war, was mourning his family, the Spanish people. This painting and Monument to the Spaniards who Died for France 1945-47 are memorials to Spanish Republicans killed in France during the Occupation. (source: Tate exhibition guide)

Much of Picasso’s work of this period symbolically chronicles the war and the deprivations of the Occupation. Rare cityscapes capture the oppressive mood of Paris in dark, grey tones. The Liberation of Paris in June 1944 and the feeling it brought of a new beginning were reflected in paintings such as The Cockerel of the Liberation 1944, a depiction of the symbol of a free France in vibrant colours.

Picasso Cockerel of the Liberation 1944

After the doves and the rest of the work on the theme of war and peace, the exhibition seems, as several reviewers have commented, to fall apart.  It concludes with a succession of rooms in which paintings – such as his series of variations on Velazquez’ Las Meninas and Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe – which most observers would argue do not have any political connotations, are subjected to laborious political interpretations:

This is an ambitious exhibition and I was hoping the curators would carry it off. But for all the richness of the early material, the remarkable loans, superb pictures and fascinating social history, about half way through, “Peace and Freedom” falls apart, as the curators arbitrarily impose misguided political readings on to pictures that just can’t carry them.
– Richard Dorment, The Telegraph

Picasso War 1951

Perhaps the best conclusion is this, from Richard Dorment’s Telegraph review:

For all his immersion in left-wing politics, with one glaring exception (Guernica – the monumental canvas expressing his outrage at the Fascist bombing of the Basque village in 1937), Picasso was never conspicuously successful as a painter of political propaganda. That is because effective agitprop requires the simplification of complex issues. Picasso was a poet, not a politician. His is an art of allusion, symbol and metaphor.


Rothko’s Seagram Murals return to Tate Liverpool

My dear master, explain red to somebody who has never known red.’

‘If we touched it with the tip of a finger, it would feel like something between iron and copper. If we took it into our palm, it would burn. If we tasted it, it would be full-bodied, like salted meat.If we took it between our lips, it would fill our mouths,. If we smelled it, it’d have the scent of a horse…’
– Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red

This morning we all went down to the Tate to see the Rothko Seagram Murals, that have returned to Tate Liverpool after 21 years. In 1988 Tate Liverpool opened  for the first time with a display of the Seagram Murals, and we remember our daughter,  four-years old, on the floor with paper and crayons  in front of them.

The story of the Seagram Murals is well-known: how they were originally commissioned for the select Four Seasons restaurant of the Seagram Building in New York; how he stated his intention was to paint ‘something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room. If the restaurant would refuse to put up my murals, that would be the ultimate compliment. But they won’t. People can stand anything these days’; how he later pulled out of the project and donated the paintings to the Tate; how the paintings arrived in London on the morning after he had bloodily killed himself.

Rothko told John Fischer, editor of Harper’s magazine,

“I accepted this assignment with strictly malicious intentions…I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room. [He wanted to make them ‘feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall’.

From Mark Rothko: A Biography by James E.B. Breslin:

Sometime after his return from Europe that summer and after the restaurant had opened in late July, Rothko decided that he and Mell should have a meal there. Rothko believed that it was ‘criminal to spend more than $5 on a meal,’ but he did like to eat; and he could, now that the restaurant was complete, see how and where others would eventually see his work. After passing a Miró tapestry hung in the travertine lobby, walking up the short stairs to the smaller lobby where the Picasso stage curtain hung, turning left and walking down the dining room vestibule, past the concierge, past the glass-in wine cellar, through the French walnut doorway and into the main dining room, Mark and Mell Rothko entered a sumptuous, high-ceilinged room… The two interior walls, divided into a grid of vertical panels, were covered with natural rawhide. Beyond the marble pool, nine steps rose to the smaller dining room, where Rothko’s murals would be installed and Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles now hung…

Seated in ‘Brno’ chairs designed by [Ludwig] Mies [van der Rohe] himself, Mark and Mell Rothko contemplated a menu which offered them a cuisine ‘derived from many of the cuisines of the world’… Rothko had hoped to paint something that would ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever ate in that room. Instead, the concrete reality of the restaurant probably ruined his appetite, and certainly ruined his project…

When he got home that evening, he called Katharine Kuh ‘in a state of high emotion’ to say he was returning the money he’d received and withdrawing his paintings. ‘When he was working on the project, his imagination plus a dash of wishful thinking projected an idyllic setting where captivated diners, lost in reverie, communed with the murals. I’m afraid it never entered his head that the works would be forced to compete with a noisy crowd of conspicuous consumers.’ But ‘real transactions’ were not on the Four Seasons menu. The next morning, arriving at his Bowery studio, ‘he came through the door like a bull, as only Rothko could, in an absolute rage,’ said Dan Rice. ‘He said quite explosively – no good mornings or anything… slamming his hat down on the table and pounding, ‘Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine.’

TateShots Issue 16: Rothko

In autumn 2008, Tate Modern presented an exhibition of the late works of Mark Rothko. In this video, the show’€™s curator, Achim Borchardrt-Hume, takes us on a tour featuring the iconic Seagram Murals, Black-Form paintings, and the Black on Grey paintings -€“ the last series made before Rothko’s death in 1970.

Afterwards, we adjourned to the Buddleia restaurant in the Contemporary Urban Centre (CUC) on Greenland Street, where all members of the party were deeply impressed by the superb Sunday roasts. Two of us had the veggie option – a nut roast – which was, as the waiter promised, outstanding. The quality of the food was superb – the vegetables were just right – al dente – and the roast potatoes were to die for. Definitely coming back here to eat in the evening!