Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

It feels like the right moment to reacquaint oneself with the work of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. In our uncertain times, escapism provides relief and comfort, and when you enter EBJ’s dreamscape world of myth and fantasy, you move beyond the petty preoccupations and ugly politics of our world now.

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Edward Burne-Jones ‘Desiderium’
(1873), Tate, London

This is the first large show of EBJ’s work in a generation and Tate Britain’s new autumn exhibition offers a major retrospective, plus some unexpected delights. Even if you don’t know EBJ’s work, you’ll be familiar with the style and imagery – his pale, elfin, androgynous figures populate the worlds of Lord of The Rings and Game of Thrones and his angels regularly grace Christmas cards. This exhibition is a chance to get to know him better.

As an artist, he was an enigmatic figure. A theology scholar at Oxford (where he met his long-time collaborator and friend William Morris), he was largely a self-taught artist (mentored by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood); yet looking at his drawings, redolent of Michelangelo and Raphael in their exquisite craftsmanship and elegance, one can only marvel at the mastery and idiosyncratic technical prowess of this auto-didact. He worked slowly and meticulously with an immense level of detail and care. EBJ did not do spontaneity: continually refining and finessing, his work evolved over many years. Regardless of the medium – oil, pastel, watercolour or chalk – his works are sumptuous, with jewel-like colours, gilding and rich textures.

EBJ was not a realist painter: he preferred the world of Bible stories, classical mythology, Renaissance culture, Arthurian legend and the Medieval romances of Chaucer and Malory (which I studied as an undergraduate, often recalling EBJ’s imagery as I deciphered these Middle English texts), but the rendering of detail in his work – clothing, armour, architecture, decorative details, plants – creates a “hyper-realism” which is immersive and mesmeric, and also curiously soporific. One can almost smell the drowsy scent of roses drifting from his great series Legend of the Briar Rose (c.1890, based on Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty fairytale). Somnolent figures are draped over beautifully-executed furniture, the air heavy with deep sleep and a general sense of inertia – we sense their arousal will be slow, a gentle groping into wakefulness. I last saw these paintings as a child, at their home at Buscot Park, a National Trust house in Oxfordshire: I loved them then, and still do. The other great EBJ series, the legend of Perseus (begun 1875), is also here, revealing the artist’s skill in rendering complex imagery and textures within a limited colour palette. These two great narrative cycles are united for the first time in this exhibition.

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Edward Burne-Jones, Portrait of Amy Gaskell. 1893.
Private Collection

Sensuous beauty oozes from every canvas, from the delicate, pale figures in their classical-style draperies to the furniture upon which they recline, or the foliage from which they emerge, insinuating themselves into view. But it was the drawings that were the real revelation of this exhibition, not just the ancillary or preparatory sketches for the large paintings, but  dashed off humorous vignettes, of his friend William Morris, or fat tattooed ladies (a subject of fascination to EBJ). These are charming, witty and personal and offer a glimpse beyond the fantasies and Medievalism. There are also a number of portraits (displayed together for the first time), more traditional in their presentation (EBJ was a reluctant portraitist), though unmistakably EBJ in their palette. Gone are the draperies and foliage, the gilding and the decorative art, allowing us to get closer to the subject – and perhaps their artist.

EBJ’s long friendship and collaboration with William Morris is also celebrated in this exhibition with examples of decorative art produced by the Morris & Co workshop. Like Morris, EBJ valued the applied arts (and craft) and the fine arts equally, and this respect is evident in his work with Morris & Co, most notably the two stunning Holy Grail tapestries. EBJ described the medium of tapestry as “half way between painting and ornament”, and like his paintings, the detail is incredible (Grayson Perry’s contemporary tapestries echo EBJ’s glorious multi-coloured narratives in their painterly style). Their Medieval imagery, setting and composition immediately reminds one of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at Cluny in Paris, which I saw as a student. There’s stained glass too, again all glowing colours and delicate grisaille (a grey painting technique). And in the middle of this room is a Broadwood grand piano, its boxy design suggestive of a harpsichord, covered in illustrations by EBJ, as much a fine piece of decorative art as a musical instrument. Other exquisite decorative items are on display – gifts created for loved ones, including a spectacular painted casket given to Frances Graham, with whom EBJ had a long-lasting and intense relationship.

EBJ shared his friend William Morris’s view that art should be for the people, and his work was, and still is, loved by the people. So ignore the sneering review by one critic of this new exhibition and go and lose yourself in EBJ’s sensuous dreamy world for a few hours.

Edward Burne-Jones at Tate Britain

24 October 2018 – 24 February 2019


FW

Header image: Laus Veneris (In Praise of Venus) by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt ARA. 1873-75. Oil on canvas. The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts

Oceania, the Royal Academy’s new survey of Pacific Art,  opens with a 35 ft. cascade of polyethylene sheeting, which sweeps through the central octagonal hall like an azure wave. It’s been sewn using traditional techniques by the contemporary Māori women’s collective Mata Aho. An adjoining roomful of seagoing paraphernalia continues the watery theme; here you can marvel at the achievement of the ‘voyagers’ who set out in their double-hull outrigger canoes to colonise 20 million square miles of ocean. Objects range from the utilitarian – elaborate prows, paddles, fishing tackle – to bizarre jeux d’esprit like the extraordinary vessel crewed by carved fish and turtles, all bending to the oar. Navigation charts formed of twisted twigs and shells, beautiful in themselves (move over, Andy Goldsworthy), helped perform feats of seamanship that boggled Captain Cook in 1774.

The RA has divided the show up thematically, and after the initial scene-setting you get sections covering the role of ceremony and ritual, the importance of ‘gifting’, the first encounters with Europeans and so on. There’s a surprising congruence among the exhibits, despite the vast distances involved, so that a decorated beam from Palau, say, or a patchwork quilt from the Cook Islands, might bear remarkable similarities to examples from far-off New Zealand or Papua New Guinea. The aesthetic co-exists with the functional: battle armour may be stitched from coir, with a helmet of fish-skin that is as comical as it is conical, but things don’t get much more badass than a trident studded with shark teeth.

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Ahu ula (feather cloak) belonging to Liholoho, Kamehameha II., Early 19th century Feathers, fibre, painted barkcloth (on reverse). 207 cm Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Wandering through the exhibition and admiring the idols, deities and ancestor figures with their stylised, geometric features feels a bit like snooping around a Modernist’s studio. I gave up bothering to tick off the endless borrowings by the likes of Picasso, Modigliani and Giacometti. At this juncture, though, you might be tempted to get a bit worked up, as I did, about the questionable blessings of Western civilisation: Captain Bligh, Paul Gauguin and STDs, Margaret Mead, mushroom clouds at Bikini Atoll, to say nothing of Rogers & Hammerstein or Elvis crooning Aloha ‘Oe. Before railing against cultural appropriation, however, it’s worth remembering that a sizeable proportion of the objects on show here – which are predominantly drawn from European collections – were, in essence, the first tourist souvenirs. Made to order by wily Islanders to satisfy the vogue for ‘artificial curiosities’, nowadays they occupy half-forgotten cabinets of regional museums in places like Maidstone or Exeter.

‘Oceania’ ends on a melancholy note, evoking memory and loss. In a short film clip, Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijine urges her fellow Islanders to ‘tell them/we don’t want to leave/we’ve never wanted to leave/and that we/are nothing without our islands’. But as a nearly caption tersely points out: ‘rising sea levels threaten to make further voyages of relocation inevitable’.

NM

Oceania at the Royal Academy 29 September-10 December 2018

Header image: Female tattooed figure, eighteenth or early nineteenth century, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Wood, pigment, height 58 cm. (c) Five Continents Museum, Munich; photo: Marianne Franke

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Canoe prow figure nguzunguzu; wood, pigments, resin, shell; 16,5 x 9 x 15,5 cm; Marovo Lagoon, New Georgia Archipelago, Solomon Islands; collection Eugen Paravicini 1929; (c) Vb 7525; Museum der Kulturen Basel; photo: Derek Li Wan Po; 2013; all rights reserved

 

Last chance to see ‘Augustus John: Drawn from Life’ at Poole Museum

Venture out of the metropolis for the day (or longer) to the small seaside town of Poole, next to Bournemouth, for a small but perfectly formed exhibition of paintings, drawings and sculpture by Augustus John, at one time considered one of the most famous British artists of the twentieth century, though his sister Gwen is now considered the greater talent.

John had a connection with Dorset from his time as a student at the Slade School of Art in London and in 1911, he set up home at Alderney Manor, in Poole, before moving in 1927 to Fryern Court, near Fordingbridge, on the Hampshire-Wiltshire-Dorset borders. This remained his main residence for the rest of his life.

The exhibition at Poole Museum is the first major exhibition focusing on John’s work since ‘Gwen John and Augustus John’ at Tate Britain in 2005. It’s curated by David Boyd Haycock, who has also curated a companion exhibition in Salisbury on John’s contemporary Henry Lamb, and which opens in Poole in 2019.

Already famous by the time he moved to Dorset, John sought solace and inspiration in the countryside around Alderney Manor. The pinewoods and beaches found their way into his paintings, rendered with a vibrantly-hued palette redolent of the south of France and the work of the Fauves. The portrait ‘Dorelia Among the Pines’ could easily be set in Provence.

Other works in the exhibition feature John’s children, rendered with tender affection. The drawings reveal John’s greatest artistic skill – as a draughtsman – and his famous sketch of T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) is here along with a rapid pencil drawing of Lawrence made in Paris*, strikingly spare and personal. John’s oil portrait of Lawrence in his Arab robes is also included.  (Visitors may be inspired to follow the “Lawrence Trail” – as we did – a short drive from Poole to Lawrence’s house Clouds Hill near Wareham, and thence to his grave in the pretty little village of Moreton; take in the Laurence Whistler engraved glass windows in the church as well.)

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T.E. Lawrence
by Augustus John
pencil, 1919 (National Portait Gallery)

This is a very fine exhibition, at least equal to a similar presentation at the Courtauld Gallery in London, revealing a more personal, intimate facet of John’s work at the mid-point of his career, while also confirming his status, at the time, as a leading artist.

We will be returning to Poole Museum in 2019 to see the Henry Lamb exhibition.

*Recently acquired by Poole Museum

Augustus John: Drawn from Life is at Poole Museum until 30th September


FW & NM

 

Header image: Augustus John, An Hour at Ower, 1914 © The estate of Augustus John / Bridgeman Images

 

Fortune’s Favours: ‘Sir Richard Wallace the Collector’ at the Wallace Collection, London

Two people I would very much like to have been born as – either one of those majestic 19th-century American wives, the type who married multi-millionaires and set about shoe-horning culture and art into their husband’s lives, whether the husband liked it or no; or, Sir Richard Wallace. If neither of those is possible, I’d like to be reincarnated as the director of the Wallace, one fine day. I once had the delight of listening to Rosalind Savill talk about her years in charge there, and no talk by any ex-director could have been more unexpected or inspiring. The affection with which Dame Rosalind regarded her ‘charges’ in the collection, as she spoke of making them ‘happy’, is something Sir Richard, the collection’s founder, would have understood perfectly.

How to typify the Wallace? Can you, indeed? In spirit it’s maybe close to the passion of a collector such as Sir John Soane, who also founded his own public museum (there is something very English about this kind of obsession – think of the Ashmolean in Oxford, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge). It’s something like the Frick in New York, only bigger, better, wider-ranging. There’s not an item in it that doesn’t have some claim to be exceptional – rare beyond belief if not unique, superlatively made, exquisitely beautiful. Just a few snapshots: the paintings include Hals’ Laughing Cavalier and Rembrandt’s portrait of his one surviving son, Titus, which is literally so lovely and painted with such love as to bring tears to the ears; the furniture includes masterpieces of the cabinetmaker’s art that would have had George IV weeping too, with envy. There are exquisite objets d’art from almost every country on earth, including in the current exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of Wallace’s birth, a gold mask from the Asante kingdom of Africa, which must have survived God knows what rude passage to find a resting place here, seconds from Oxford St. There is porcelain, armour, weaponry, maiolica, glass, bronzes and jewels. If you took the top 10% say, from the V&A, the Metropolitan in New York, the Frick itself and the Louvre, you might make a rival to the Wallace, but not otherwise. It takes more than money to be a collector at this level; it takes knowledge, taste; the passion that, now so few make or inherit money on that insane 19th-century scale, has transmogrified itself into the sensibility of the best museum curators or directors. And they still want the things in their charge to be happy.

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I think anything collected by Richard Wallace must have been very happy. Wallace had something of a charmed life of his own, to begin with. Born in 1818, and educated by the 4thMarquess of Hertford at his own expense, Wallace was then employed by the Marquess as his private secretary, and on the Marquess’s death in 1870 inherited a sizable chunk of the Hertford fortune, and all the Marquess’s own art collection, thus confirming every single suspicion that had ever been entertained concerning Wallace’s own likely parentage. Not that he and the 4thMarquess were that similar – the Marquess was the kind of skinflint-ish collector who one imagines rubbing his hands together as he locked his collection away and pocketed the key, hissing ‘Mine, mine, all mine!’ while Wallace himself was open-hearted and open-handed too. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, this globally minded soul contributed 2.5 million francs to relieve the suffering of the wounded and of those Brits the siege had trapped.

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The bicentenary exhibition is down on the Wallace’s sunken ground floor, past what may be one of the pleasantest places to sip coffee in London (yes, this really is a rather nice museum with an ace caff attached). It’s not large, it’s not boastful, but it is endlessly intriguing. It’s set up as a sort of catwalk of the pieces Wallace himself most loved and prized, including a diddy little French gold and enamel cutlery-set, too pretty to be used for eating anything beyond the odd macaroon, which Wallace bought as a very young man, then had to sell after he had over-reached himself as collector and before he came into the Hertford fortune, and hunted down anew and bought back, twenty years later. One of the joys of a collection such as this is the chance to play detective, linking together the separate treasures within it and providing your own psychological infill. The exhibition concludes with the last piece Wallace every bought, in 1888: a 17th-century bronze of an acrobat, 40 cm high, walking on his hands, muscles in his back tensed and ridged as he tries to bring his waving legs under control. He might be falling headlong; he might have conquered and suspended time. As the embodiment of the collector’s mentality, it’s all that needs be said.

JCH

‘Sir Richard Wallace the Collector’ is at the Wallace Collection until 6 January 2019.

Rembrandt: Titus, the artist’s son, c.1657

Asante trophy head, 18th or 19th century

Barthélemy Prieur, An acrobat, c.1600

All images © The Wallace Collection

https://www.wallacecollection.org

The Kahlo Cult: ‘Frida Kahlo – Making Herself Up’ at the V&A

That the V&A’s Frida Kahlo exhibition is fully booked until the end of August says a lot about her iconic status today – and it’s not her paintings that people flock to see but the “iconography” of Frida: her clothes, her painted plaster corsets, her jewellery and her ephemera. Her striking countenance with its distinctive “mono brow” is as recognisable today as the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

She was of course a remarkable woman. Strong and courageous, passionate, independent and talented, she refused to allow her physical limitations and disabilities – the result of childhood polio compounded by a horrific road accident when she was a young woman – hold her back. She started painting, from her bed, when she was recuperating from the accident and continued to paint throughout her life. Her art is honest, sometimes painfully so, compelling, vibrant and defiant. She celebrates Mexico’s culture and landscape in her paintings and uses the self-portrait to comment on her personal situation – emotionally and physically. She was married to A Great Artist, Diego Rivera, living in a house which enabled them to work in their own personal creative spaces and yet come together for all the little rituals of daily life and love, and she sought to create her own artistic identity that was separate from Rivera’s. Today she is better known than he is as an artist – and more highly revered.

The V&A’s exhibition seeks to celebrate the life of Frida Kahlo through a remarkable collection of personal artefacts, intimate belongings and clothing. Locked away for 50 years after her death, on her instructions, this collection has never before been exhibited outside Mexico. There is very little art in this show – only a handful of paintings and drawings which are directly related to the artefacts on display. This exhibition is about Frida the woman rather than Frida the artist and her remarkable creativity feels sidelined.

Photographs line the walls of the exhibition, including the beautiful iconic portraits of Frida by Nicholas Murray (with whom she had an affair) and Imogen Cunningham, which now grace tote bags and scarves galore in gallery gift shops and beyond, while the rest of the exhibition space is taken up with glass cabinets of Frida’s possessions. There is a touching display of her make up and perfume bottles, but I could have done without another cabinet full of empty medicine phials and details of the drugs she took for pain relief. In another her prosthetic leg is displayed with all the reverence of a holy relic – and her plaster corsets and body braces, which she had to wear to support her fragile spine, are given equal veneration, almost ghoulishly so. Visitors crowd around these highly intimate items, speaking in hushed tones…

The highlight of the exhibition is the display of her colourful clothes. She favoured the traditional clothing of the indigenous people of Mexico, in particular the long flounced dresses of the Tehuana women. This was not because she was making some kind of deliberate Grayson Perry type statement about her identity (as suggested by the exhibition’s tag line – “Making Herself Up“), but for more practical and prosaic reasons: the long, flounced skirts covered her legs, one of which was thinner than the other due to polio, and could be worn comfortably when she was forced to use a wheelchair; while the square-cut tunic (Huipil) fit loosely over the special orthopaedic corsets and back braces she had to wear.

Throughout her life, Frida Kahlo wanted to be recognised as an artist in her own right, not as the wife of Diego Rivera. She did not seek to create her own personal “brand” or iconography through her clothes, shawls, jewellery and hair decorations; nor did she capitalise on her suffering to draw attention to herself and her art. Yet the V&A exhibition dwells inordinately on her pain, including the use of a strange febrile soundtrack – a claustrophobic, migraine inducing single-note hum – which plays continuously throughout the galleries (must everything be accompanied by a soundtrack these days?). With her art relegated to second place, this exhibition presents Frida Kahlo as fashion icon first and foremost, and as such I found it cultish and subjective.

Needless to say, the exhibition gift shop is stuffed with Frida memorabilia and spin offs, from tasseled earrings to tin votives, and more…. The cult status of Frida shows no sign of diminishing.

FW


Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up continues at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 4 November 2018.

 

(Header image: Frida Kahlo photographed by Nicholas Murray)

MIXED MESSAGES IN MIXED MEDIA: MICHAEL JACKSON ON THE WALL National Portrait Gallery, London

In which your humble reviewer is left asking questions.

When Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video launched in 1983 it was a major media moment at a time when media moments were still a rarity. David Dimbleby, no less, introduced it on British TV, and back then in the 80s it blew our little sparkly socks off. Conversations in the office were about nothing else for days. Then came Bad, which made us all smile, because no matter how much the Peter Pan of Pop sexed himself up with codpieces and grabbed his crotch, we knew you weren’t really, Michael. No bad boy, but Lord, you could move, and that voice, which always seemed about to crack out of its register, punctuated with all those babyish little gasps, was unique. Then, somewhere between Bad and HIStory, the slave – you know, the one who sits behind the Emperor, whispering ‘Remember Caesar, you are only mortal’ – got kicked out the chariot, and it all went a bit weird. There were the first rumours, then the first allegations of child abuse. The albums still sold in their millions, but then so did Liberace’s. There was the overblown unwitting self-parody of ‘Earthsong’ at the Brits in 1996, where Jarvis Cocker leaped on stage and did what we were all thinking. (One of the exhibits at the NPG is the ‘Earthsong’ video, scrolled backward, which is about the kindest thing to do with it.) There were more allegations of child abuse, and a court case, where those of us who remembered Thriller and Bad were presented with what Peter Pan turns into in middle-age – anorexically frail, pop-eyed, with wiggy hair and a tiny scared white face ruined by plastic surgery. It was awful. You could have foretold then and there that the end was nigh.

The NPG’s new show spends very little time on end-stage Michael Jackson, which is understandable, although in a show that is about image, is an obvious and very white elephant in the room. It’s not biographical, and it’s not about memorabilia either, although it does include the ‘Dinner Jacket’, tinkling with miniature cutlery and as small, up close, as historical costume. So it misses that sense of being closer to the star that the V&A achieved in its Kylie and Bowie shows. According to the NPG’s new(ish) director, Nick Cullinan, the inspiration for the show came about almost as an epiphany, when he realized the number of artists who were inspired by Michael Jackson’s staging of himself; in which case it’s odd that quite so many of the exhibits were created in response not to Jackson live and in full and glorious flower, but to Cullinan sending out what sounds to have been almost a call for entries. There was a lot of newspeak at the press view, in that slightly desperate tone resorted to when an exhibition doesn’t quite add up, of how Jackson’s image-making is ‘an interesting phenomenon to think about.’ Really? In what way, and what are the Gallery’s thoughts? Maybe the catalogue explains them – it would be fascinating to read Zadie Smith’s thoughts on Jackson, especially – but at the press view, the shop was still being put together, and the catalogue unobtainable. Note to whoever is in charge of the commercial side of the Gallery: having your shop ready for the press view is Museum Retail 101.

The show also aims to bring in a new and younger audience, which Lord, knows, the NPG could do with – visitor figures have collapsed to the level they were at nearly twenty years ago. There have been redundancies, questions asked. Asked they will be still. All galleries want to attract that new and younger audience – the museum demographic is like a slide rule with the top end fixed while the other constantly seeking to fall lower and lower – and it’s a praiseworthy aim, but is Michael Jackson really the way to do it? The show opens in the year when he would have been 60 – this is not Ed we’re talking about, not Kanye, not Taylor. This is an entertainer as remote from most 18-25 year olds as Vera Lynn was from me. And one that in his deracination of himself is a pretty compromised figure too. What would have become of him in the age of #metoo is best left unguessed.

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Dangerous by Mark Ryden, 1991. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

On to the exhibits, however, as they’re what it’s all about. There’s a Haring, a Warhol, a Grayson Perry, a Maggie Hambling – most of the other artists will be much less familiar. Precious little here for the core audience of NPG visitors; they will have to wait for the Gainsborough show in the autumn. What there is, is kitsch, which is both colourful and fun, although at times the show does feel a bit thin – video art is large-scale, obviously, but to have quite so many spaces devoted to a single example of it makes the show feels like one of those essays padded out with quotes from other people; and all of the spaces are way too small for the music bouncing around distortedly amongst them; even at the press view you could hardly hear yourself think. There’s a huge green Michael, and a small grey one; heartbreaking reminders of how cute he was as a kid, and how handsome as a young man. The infamous Jeff Koons sculpture, the kind of exhibit the show is crying out for, is there only as the background in a photograph; and Mohammed al Fayed’s irresistibly awful statue of Jackson, which used to stand outside Craven Cottage, is missing too. David McCarthy’s drawings suggest he saw Jackson as Pinocchio, which is thought-provoking, if rather cruel; David La Chappelle’s Beatification (‘We persecuted him, every person who ever bought a tabloid or watched the news…’) equates Jackson with Princess Diana. There is a heck of a lot of religious imagery in the show, but the Gallery’s interpretation lets this go almost unremarked; in fact it’s as if there’s a whole layer of comment simply not attempted here. The visitor is dutifully told what they are looking at, the circumstances in which it was made, what the artist thinks of it, but curatorial explication or interpretation is waveringly uncertain and hesitant, or absent altogether. The High Gothic hubris of Dangerous by Mark Ryden, for example, cover art for the 1991 album, in its astonishing Hapsburg Empire frame, could fill a book on its own. Likewise Kehinde Wiley’s 2010 Equestrian Portrait of Jackson as Philip II of Spain – one of the few works that is contemporary with the singer himself, even if it was finished posthumously. You find yourself pondering stage costume as armour, then image-making as a whole as armour, and struck by the poignancy and subtle truth in the fact that the face atop the body is not that of Jackson as he was in 2010, but that from the height of his career – lightly tan, crisp-featured, alert and wary. When you’re dead your image belongs to everyone, but how could any artist add anything to Michael Jackson’s image-making that he hadn’t in fact already done to himself?

JCH

Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson) by Kehinde Wiley, 2010. Olbricht Collection, Berlin. Photo by Jeurg Iseler. Courtesy of Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and Sean Kelly, New York © Kehinde Wiley.

Michael Jackson: On The Wall is at the National Portrait Gallery from 28 June until 21 October.

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One at Tate Britain

 

Tate Britain’s survey of the impact of the First World War on art in Britain, France and Germany opens with a series of iconic images of the conflict. There are photographs of shattered cathedrals, helmets dented by shrapnel and post-war Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battlefields of France. There are Henry Tonks’s unforgettable pastel drawings showing facial injury cases before treatment. There is Jacob Epstein’s Terminator-like torso in bronze from his ‘The Rock Drill’ of 1913-14, as unnerving as ever. Less familiar will be German works such as Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s sculpture ‘Fallen Man’, made for the cemetery of his hometown of Duisburg – humanity crawling away on all fours to die.

The first two or three rooms of ‘Aftermath’ admirably convey art’s role in the public memorialization of 1914-18, although in truth there’s not much here that you won’t see on a visit to the permanent collections of the Imperial War Museum. What I didn’t come away with (and this is where Tate could have played its strong suit) was much sense of the personal response of artists to the war.

Take the case of Paul Nash, one of several artists who were left with psychological scars as a result of their experiences in the trenches. Nash spent the early 1920s recovering from ‘war strain’ at Dymchurch on the edge of Romney Marsh, where he painted a series of bleak, despairing landscapes; there are stories of him staring fixedly out to sea for hours on end, often at night. On the whole, I’d rather have seen one of those Dymchurch seascapes than another vitrine filled with trench paraphernalia.

 

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Otto Dix (1891-1969), War: Skull 1924, etching on paper 257 x 195 mm The George Economou Collection. © Estate of Otto Dix 2018

 

And what about taking the opportunity to remember those artists who were killed in the war? The best-known cases were the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the German painters Franz Marc and August Macke and the British painter-poet Isaac Rosenberg. Marc in particular, like Macke a co-founder of Der Blaue Reiter and only 36 when he died at Verdun in 1916, was a huge loss to art. Yet none of these names are even mentioned in the Tate show.

In Room 4 (of eight) there’s an abrupt change of gears and the rest of the show is a whistle-stop tour of the main movements in post-war art, from the angry counterblasts of Dada & Surrealism to the considerably more lyrical mood of the so-called ‘Return to Order’. In the last two rooms there’s a breathless attempt to chronicle the war’s impact on society by looking at Neue Sachlichkeit (‘New Objectivity’), Bauhaus and life in ‘the New City’.

 

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Christian Schad 1894 – 1982, Self-Portrait 1927 Oil on wood 760 x 620 mm, lent from a private collection 1994 © Christian Schad Stiftung Aschaffenburg/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2017

 

‘Aftermath’ feels like two exhibitions sandwiched together, one that can’t make up its mind if it’s trying to show us that ‘war is hell’ or simply trying to unravel the complexities of post-war art. Worse, all the blood and gore in the early rooms makes the classicizing trend of the 1920s seem frivolous, which it certainly was not (as the Tate itself demonstrated in a landmark exhibition in 1990, ‘On Classic Ground: Picasso, Léger, de Chirico and the New Classicism 1910-1930’).

The Germans are the ones who come out on top in all this, whether it’s the existential Angst of Beckmann and Kollwitz, the mordant satire of Grosz and Dix, the sinister decadence of Christian Schad’s portraits or the weird geometric automata of Oskar Schlemmer. Perhaps the post-war upheavals in German society, far more thoroughgoing than in Britain or France, provided better take-off points for art. Or maybe they were better artists. Germany may have been defeated on the battlefields but in cultural terms it was the undoubted victor. Until, of course, the Nazis showed up.

NM

 

‘Aftermath’ at Tate Britain (to 23 September 2018)

 

Header image: Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), Torso in Metal from “The Rock Drill” 1913-14 bronze 705 x 584 x 445 mm, Tate © The Estate of Jacob Epstein