Tracing the Century: arbitrary and puzzling, but with gems

Tracing the Century: arbitrary and puzzling, but with gems
Henry Moore, Pink and Green Sleepers, 1941
Henry Moore, Pink and Green Sleepers, 1941

Just before it closed, I went along to see Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change at Tate Liverpool, an exhibition which aims to highlight the fundamental role of drawing as a vehicle for change in modern and contemporary artFor the average art-lover it’s a deeply puzzling assembly, not only of sketches and drawings but also paintings, sculpture and film; moreover, the curators have jarringly juxtaposed radically different artists from different perspectives and periods.

So we find Cezanne sharing a wall with Klee and Richard Hamilton.  Henry Moore’s brilliant London blitz drawings are paired for some reason that escapes me with contemporary artist Matthew Monahan, while a Moore sculpture shares a space with works by Francis Bacon, Jacob Beuys and Andy Warhol.  The poster advertising the exhibition features anatomical drawings by William Orpen that were really designed as teaching aids for art students, while the show gets its name from Jasper Johns’ ‘Tracing’, part of a series in which Johns literally traced art works by Cezanne and others  leading one art critic to write that, ‘any art student ought to know that a tracing of a painting isn’t a response or an interpretation’.

The exhibition got a fairly savage review in the Independent:
There seems to be a vogue among curators at the various Tates for trying to force connections between palpably unconnected works or genres. Maybe it’s a leftover from the whole Dream/Future/Multistorey Car Park thing at the pre-new-hang Tate Modern.  Anyway, it’s time to stop.  Like a provincial restaurant, Tracing the Century‘s menu talks the talk but doesn’t dish up the goods. It starts from the unsurprising premise that drawing was a catalyst for change in the art of the past 100 years, which is certainly true, although it was also true for the century before that and pretty well every century since the caves at Lascaux. […] Irritatingly, Tracing the Century manages to be both arbitrary and over-organised at the same time – rambling vaguely from room to room while stopping to suggest implausible connections between unlike artists.
However, this is a big show, bringing together around a hundred artworks from the Tate collection, so you’d expect there to be some good stuff.  I quickly decided to just focus on the works that spoke to me – and there were many – and forget about trying to grapple with the curators’ argument.
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire,1905-6
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1905-6

One of the first treasures I encountered was this watercolour sketch by Cezanne of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, his favourite subject from the late 1880s until his death. Cezanne returned, day after day to sketch it from different viewpoints and in changing light conditions and this watercolour was painted from the hillside above his studio at Les Lauves just outside Aix-en-Provence. The Tate caption explains its significance:

In his landscapes, he abandoned traditional fixed-point perspective in an attempt to capture the natural movement of the eye as it roams across the vista. The viewer is led across the surface of his image through passages of carefully constructed brush-marks and subtle tones.  Emile Bernard visited Cézanne in 1904 and noted his unique approach to sketching in watercolours: ‘His method was strange, entirely different from the usual practices and of an extreme complexity. He began with the shadows and with a touch, which he covered with a second more extensive touch, then with a third, until all these tints, forming a mesh, both coloured and modelled the object.’

Paul Gauguin, Tahitians, 1891
Paul Gauguin, Tahitians, 1891

Paul Gauguin’s Tahitians is hard to date exactly owing to its unfinished state, but most probably it was made about 1891 during Gauguin’s first stay in Tahiti. In its unfinished state, though, it reveals a great deal about Gauguin’s working methods.   He began his work in Tahiti by making a number of studies in order to come to terms with his new subject-matter. Here he is sketching out his ideas, beginning with a crayon and charcoal drawing on paper, and adding in detail on the left in oil.  On 11 March 1892 Gauguin wrote to Daniel de Monfreid: ‘I work more and more but so far only studies or rather documents … If they aren’t of use to me later they will be useful to others.’

Woman Seated in the Underground 1941
Henry Moore, Woman Seated in the Underground, 1941

I’m not going to complain about an exhibition that brings to your home town three of the drawings made by Henry Moore of Londoners sheltering from the blitz in 1941 in Belsize Park underground station.  The three drawings here – Pink and Green Sleepers (top), Woman Seated in the Underground (above) and Tube Shelter Perspective (below) – began as rough drawings that Moore made in the shelter that he developed once he reached home, using a range of techniques: wax crayon, watercolour wash, pencil, inks.

Tube Shelter Perspective 1941
Henry Moore, Tube Shelter Perspective, 1941

Moore uses a variety of techniques in this series: allowing wax crayon to dispel water-based paints or inks; scratching into paint and crayon with sharp objects; smudging materials; using thick impasto and thin washes; alternating fine wispy lines with heavy contours. The effect is more sculptural in texture than traditional drawing. The rough surfaces and scratchy lines bear a strong resemblance to Moore’s sculptures of reclining figures or natural forms such as weather-worn stone.  Which perhaps explains why, as soon as you enter the next room, you are confronted with his 1938 Recumbent Figure from 1938, dominating the room.

Henry Moore - Recumbent Figure 1938

Henry Moore was 42 and teaching at Chelsea Polytechnic when the Second World War began. At first, his life carried on as normal, though he was unable to work on his sculptures due to a scarcity of materials. One evening, he was delayed on his journey home from London and came upon the scenes that would provide him with these poignant images. When he arrived at his underground station, Belsize Park, he was transfixed by the sight of the sleeping figures of Londoners sheltering on the platform and along the underground passages.  He immediately made a connection with his own art:

I had never seen so many reclining figures and even the holes out of which the trains were coming seemed to me like the holes in my sculpture… people who were obvious strangers to one another were forming intimate groups.

Moore returned several times to make discrete sketches so as to avoid intrusion on the sleepers’ privacy. The sheltering forms seemed to evoke associations between the sleepers and forms in the landscape, unconsciously supporting the wartime propaganda message that the British people were an indomitable force which would prevail against all hostilities.

Warhol, Boy with thumb in his mouth, 1956
Andy Warhol, Boy with Thumb in his Mouth, 1956

Andy Warhol may be better known for his pop art screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and his soup cans, but early in his artistic career, in the early 1950s, he produced some exquisite drawings that revealed him to be a skilled and sensitive draughtsman.  Two of these drawings are on display here – Boy with Thumb in his Mouth and Resting Boy, from 1955-56 – which employ a superb economy of line, with all unnecessary detail removed.  Warhol’s work revealed a fascination with the male body throughout his career, a fascination first evident in his early line drawings of young men from the mid to late 1950s, many of which were included in his ‘Drawings for a Boy Book’ exhibition at the Bodley Gallery, New York in 1956. The style of these drawings show similarities to the work of Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau, both of whom employed a similar reductive linear drawing technique, and whose work Warhol admired.  There’s a delicacy and tenderness in these drawings that sets them apart from the rest of his wiork.

Warhol, Resting Boy, 1955
Andy Warhol, Resting Boy, 1955

Alongside these two drawings hangs a later one  – a portrait of David Hockney completed in 1974.  There’s a connection here, of course: Hockney played an important role in the British Pop Art movement, and he, too, is a master of the art of line drawing. The Warhol portrait is a pencil line drawing in which the features and textures of Hockney’s hair and shirt have been reduced to abstract lines and shapes. But it is less satisfying than the 1950s drawings, almost certainly being completed by the process of projecting a photograph on to a large sheet of paper, where Warhol would then draw around the areas of the image he wished to define. When the projector was switched off, the drawing remained.

Andy Warhol, David Hockney, 1974
Andy Warhol, David Hockney, 1974

Tucked away in a small side room is David Hockney’s portrait of his mother –  Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972 – drawn in pen in one session, without revisions.  It’s a gem.

 David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972
David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972

In this line drawing, Hockney’s mother, sitting in a wing chair, is revealed as frail-looking with a lined face. Wearing a simple dress with short sleeves and a round neck, the figure sits with her hands neatly folded on her lap and her legs crossed. The chair is positioned squarely within the frame but the figure sits upright against the chair’s right-hand corner, which gives a three-quarter view of the sitter. The face is worked with more detail than the rest of the image. The drawing is inscribed ‘Bradford, Aug 2nd, 1972’.  Laura Hockney was then 72 years old, but as her obituary in The Guardian noted, she lived to be 99 years old, ‘deceptively frail-looking during most of the artist’s years of fame, she attended receptions in a wheelchair surrounded by gossip and laughs’. She was subject of many of Hockney’s drawings, paintings and photo-collages, and had encouraged her son in his artistic ambitions when he was a schoolboy.

 Lucian Freud, Narcissus, 1948
Lucian Freud, Narcissus, 1948

Here’s another remarkable drawing: Lucian Freud’s Narcissus, from 1948.  The subject is the boy in classical mythology who fell in love with his own reflection and died of love for himself.  I think it might be a self portrait of the artist obsessed by the details of his own face reflected in the glass below him.  The drawing deploys a variety of techniques:  the texture of the thick woollen sweater is minutely detailed in lines and cross-hatching.  His hair is drawn with quick, flowing pen lines, while the details of his face are marked by pen stipple. The edge of the mirror is close to the subject’s chin, creating a stark division of figure and reflection.  The Tate caption adds: ‘The reflection is cropped above the eyes which, had they been included, would have been looking upwards at the viewer. Instead, the subject is rendered a double object, enclosed in a circularised, interior world.’

Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar Seated, 1938
Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar Seated, 1938

Dora Maar was a a stunningly beautiful, passionate and acutely intelligent young woman, a painter, photographer and reporter, who became Picasso’s lover in 1935, and remained so through the war years. She was one of his most important models during that period and, perhaps as important, a great influence on his art and politics.

Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray, 1937
Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray, 1937

Shortly after their first meeting, in the winter of 1935-36, Dora photographed Picasso in her Paris studio. Dora’s photography and the experimental techniques she employed were a source of inspiration to Picasso. He began to take photographs of her that were the catalyst for a whole series of works. Using photographs of Dora as a starting point, Picasso painted several portraits of Maar.  This preparatory sketch, using ink, gouache and oil paint,shows Dora with her hands crossed elegantly in her lap.

Grayson Perry - Aspects of Myself
Grayson Perry – Aspects of Myself

Centre piece in another room is Grayson Perry’s ceramic vase Aspects of Myself which I suppose is present here because the surface of the vase is inscribed with writing and drawings that reflect key moments in his life or which address issues of identity, class, sexuality and gender that are central to Perry’s identity and sharply satirical view of society and the art world. Aspects of Myself is an autobiographical work showing the artist in the guise of his transvestite alter-ego ‘Claire’.  In an interview with The Art Newspaper in February 2012, the interviewer observed, ‘Another unusual aspect of your work is that it incorporates a lot of content, narrative scenes and often writing’.  Grayson Perry responded:

Oh, you’ve got to have content; I think it’s cowardly to avoid content. I judged a competition the other day and among the 700 works the number of wishy-washy semi-abstract paintings I saw was incredible. It was as though they wanted to make art, but didn’t want to say anything. I hate the aimless, apparently transcendent thing in sub-Rothkos: “Oh, this is all about spirituality.” Fuck off. Why isn’t it about your mother-in-law or poverty or war?

What is your content about?

Things that have interested me all my life: religion, kinky sex, class, taste, folk art – stuff like that.

Paul Nash, Three Rooms, 1937
Paul Nash, Three Rooms, 1937

There are a couple of Paul Nash works in the exhibition; one of them is Three Rooms from 1937, a  pencil, crayon and watercolour sketch on paper. The work reflects Nash’s renewed commitment to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. It shows three interrelated rooms invaded by the sky, a forest and the sea. The air of strangeness and the combination of disparate elements is typical of much Surrealist painting and writing, but its mysterious symbolism also recalls the work of William Blake.

See also

 

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Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist

Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist

What can I add to the mountain of words that are being written about Lucian Freud, whose death at the age of 88 has been announced?  He was, arguably, the most important British post-Second World War painter. He has became famous not only for his individual style of painting, which developed over the years into that distinctive slathered impasto, but also for his masterful and deeply personal interpretation of the nude and the representation of the human face and body. Continue reading “Lucian Freud: dogged portraitist”

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.

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Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic

Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic

Today, under black skies and torrential rain, I finally got to the Tate to see Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic,  the exhibition that explores the impact of different black cultures from around the Atlantic on art from the early twentieth-century to today. The show takes its inspiration from Paul Gilroy’s influential book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness 1993. and features over 140 works by more than 60 artists.

Gilroy used the term ‘The Black Atlantic’ to describe the transmission of black cultures around the Atlantic, and the forms of cultural mixing that occurred as a result of transatlantic slavery and its legacy. Gilroy conceived of the Atlantic Ocean as a ‘continent in negative’, a network connecting Africa, North and South America, the Caribbean and Europe, tracing routes (real and imagined) across the Atlantic.

There is a great deal of truly outstanding art in this exhibition, though I think it must be said that the quality and interest of the work declines considerably the closer one comes to the present.

The exhibition is divided into seven chronological sections. We start with the European avant-garde and the influence of African sculpture on artists such as Picasso and Brancusi. Then across the Atlantic we explore the impact of European modernism on emerging African-American artists, particularly those of the Harlem Renaissance group. The exhibition traces the emergence of modernism in Latin America and Africa and returns to Europe at the height of the jazz age and the craze for ‘Negrophilia’. The final section examines current debates around post-Black Art and features contemporary artists such as Chris Ofili and Kara Walker.

An interest in African art in Europe was initially aroused through the objects brought back from the colonies by traders and explorers in the nineteenth-century. Dissatisfied with traditional artistic conventions Picasso set out to re-invent art in his own terms, inspired by the direct approach of non-European culture.  The mask-like face, wood-coloured body and hatched planes of Bust of a Woman (1909) reveal the influence of African carving. This faceting and breaking  up of form was a stepping-stone to Cubism.

Other artists influenced by non-Western culture were Modigliani, with his highly stylised heads and figures, and Constantin Brancusi,  who blended non-European sources with the traditional wood carvings of his native Romania.

European Modernism had a profound global influence. Artists from other continents encountered modern art-forms through travelling or studying in Europe. Tarsila do Amaral was taught by Cubist Fernande Léger    and was inspired by European artists’ uses of non-Western culture. On her return to South America she turned to the indigenous art of her own continent. Moro da Favella (1925) represents a Brazilian subject in a style that fuses a wide range of influences experienced on her transatlantic travels.

This approach was shared by fellow artists who became known as the Brazilian Antropofagist movement. One of these artists was Lasar Segall, a Lithuanian who emigrated to Brazil in the 1920s. Banana Plantation (1927) uses a visual language derived from Cubism and German Expressionism allied to aspects of native South American art.

In the United States, artists of African descent appropriated European modernism in order to express a new confidence and pride in the arts and cultures of Africa. One of the first artists to use this new visual language for depicting themes of African heritage was Aaron Douglas.  Aspiration (1936, top of page) contrasts images of  slavery with the vision of an uplifted and educated future for African Americans in the ‘city built on a hill’. I was particularly struck by examples of his collaboration with Langston Hughes for the magazine Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life (1926) in which he illustrated several beautiful poems by Hughes that utilise the blues form.

I got to leave this town
This lonesome place
Got to leave this town
‘Cause it’s a lonesome place
A po’, po’ boy can’t
Find a friendly face

Goin’ down to de river
Flowin’ deep an slow
Goin’ down to de river
Deep an slow –
‘Cause there ain’t no worries
Where de waters go

In 1934, Douglas was commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project to paint a series of murals for the New York Public Library. His cycle, Aspects of Negro Life: the Negro in an African Setting (1934), traces the experience of the African American, from slavery in the Southern States to emancipation in the modern city. Douglas said, “I refuse to compromise and see blacks as anything less than a proud and majestic people.”

British artist Edward Burra was initially attracted to Harlem through his love of jazz music. The vibrancy of the area’s African-American culture is captured in Harlem (1934).

Another striking piece from this period is Sargent Johnson’s Forever Free, a monumental sculpture, in lacquered wood, of a proud and dignified mother protecting her children. Johnson was a prominent artist of Swedish, African American and Cherokee ancestry from the San Francisco Bay area who aimed to celebrate the beauty and dignity of the African American.

Pedro Figari was an artist from Uruguay who lived in Paris between 1925 and 1933 where his painting was influenced by Vuillard and Bonnard. A great deal of his work focuses on the Afro-Uruguayan community, and the memories of his youth in the district of Candombe.

The exhibition continues by tracing the influence of Négritude – the literary, artistic and political movement founded in 1930s Paris – on the visual arts of the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Négritude originated with a group of African and Caribbean students in Paris led by Martinican poet Aimé Césaire and the future Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor. A rejection of colonial racism, Négritude aimed to reclaim the value of blackness and African culture. It was influenced by both Surrealism and the Harlem Renaissance.

With the advent of the Second World War, the ideas of Négritude spread as its leading figures left Paris for the Caribbean and Africa. New forms of modernism influenced by Négritude arose in these locations, including tendencies identified with creolisation in the Caribbean and the Natural Synthesis movement in Nigeria.

Creolisation reflected a blending of cultures and the acknowledgement by artists and writers that their cultural influences did not come solely from Africa. The concept of Natural Synthesis was conceived by the artist Uche Okeke following the independence of Nigeria in 1960. It proposed a fusion of European modernism with local African aesthetic influences, creating an artistic agenda for a nation reborn.

In Street to Mbari, the American artist Jacob Lawrence captures the flurry of a busy outdoor market in Nigeria.Lawrence first studied African art as a young man in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. In the 1960s he travelled to Nigeria, where he painted Street to Mbari.

Felix Idubor (1928-1991) was a Nigerian sculptor from Benin, part of a group of young artists in Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s who raised awareness of the African artistic tradition at the time of decolonisation and independence. He is considered one of the pioneers of Nigerian contemporary art. The exhibition displays this photograph of his 1965 bas-relief for Independence House in Lagos.

The ‘Dissident Identities’ section of the exhibition deals with the counter-cultural politics of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Black art shifted focus to a concern with the specific social and political implications of slavery, segregation and oppression within societies such as the United States and Brazil. Highlighted here is the work of Romare Bearden who was involved in the struggle for Civil Rights. Bearden created a series of collages depicting scenes of African-American life that also commented on modernism and its use of African sculpture.

‘Reconstructing the Middle Passage’ examines how contemporary artists have revisited this historical trauma, throughn a process of imaginative recovery. This room reflects Paul Gilroy’s idea of the ship as both a symbol of the Black Atlantic and the mobile means by which it became linked. In Bird in Hand 2006 Ellen Gallagher explores a mythical ‘Black Atlantis’, a fictional underwater world populated by the descendents of pregnant slaves thrown overboard and whose unborn babies developed into a new marine life-form. Gallagher’s own identity as a black Irish-American is crucial to her interpretation of this myth which interweaves memories of oppression, migration and forgotten histories. The artist’s use of the traditional technique of scrimshaw, adds a sense of peeling back layers to this complex image.

The lightbox image, Western Union Series no. 1 (Cast No Shadow) 2007, by Isaac Julien is part of an installation work which investigates the wider context of diaspora, taking in latter day migrations from North Africa, Cuba and across the Caribbean. This meditative image also recalls the “door of no return” through which Africans once passed to board slave vessels: ‘We will miss you now that you are not with us’.

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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!

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Rothko at the Tate

Rothko at the Tate

Another destination in London was the Tate to see the Rothko exhibition. It reunites Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals, originally commissioned in the 1950s for The Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, New York. The artist was always uneasy about the commission, reportedly saying

I hope to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room.

Ultimately, he withdrew the works and donated a group of nine to the Tate. After months at sea, the paintings arrived safely at the London docks on February 25, 1970, the very day he committed suicide in New York.

Rothko’s paintings are amongst the most iconic of late 20th century canvases, their luminous, soft-edged rectangles saturated with colour in diffused bands of red and orange, yellows and rich browns. This exhibition also includes many of his lesser-known, austere works, in a more stark palette of black, brown and grey, remniscent of Goya’s late black paintings. For example, this late work, Untitled, 1969, of grey and black, painted shortly before his suicide:

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