Munch’s Scream Revisited at the British Museum

 

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The Sick Child by Edvard Munch 1885

You wouldn’t wish Edvard Munch’s childhood on your worst enemy. Munch was brought up in Kristiania (as Oslo then was) in a strict Lutheran family in the second half of the 19th century. Aged five, Munch lost his mother to TB and nearly succumbed to the same illness himself eight years later. As he lay on his bed coughing up blood aged thirteen, his father, a medical officer, told him to prepare for death. Severals years later, his beloved older sister was the next victim to die of consumption in their family. 

Most understandably, Munch escaped this house of doom as soon as he could. His art studies and student life put him in touch with local bohemian circles. What a breath of life-affirming air that must have been even if it meant teaming up with the local nihilist who advocated suicide as an affirming fingers up to society!

Munch survived and took to drinking, brawling and tortuous love affairs. Like a modern-day Instagrammer, Munch transformed his personal life into an art form.

The prints on show at the British Museum are the products of the formative years he spent in Kristiania, Berlin and Paris, right up until the end of WW1. 

Love is the overriding theme. The Kiss (1895) shows a naked couple in passionate embrace by a window with the curtains drawn back. Their complete disregard for privacy shows the all consuming aspect of love which ignores any rules of propriety. It’s Rodin’s passionate Kiss statue taken one step further. A wood cut alongside the print, repeats the theme but this time the couple is fused together, into a twisted opaque block. The print in this instance has become an abstract work.

 

 

 

 

The Kiss

 

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 In Vampire II a red-haired woman buries her face into her male lover’s neck. Her long strands spill over his shoulder, his hair and face. The print was originally called Love and Pain. Women as seductresses and destroyers of men was a familiar theme with artists at the time and it was one which proved popular with the art-buyers.

Meanwhile in Madonna, a bare-breasted woman, stripped to the waist, is presented as a life-bearing vessel. A strange foetus peers out at you in the bottom-left hand corner and swimming sperm inhabit the frame. The swirling paint making up the background is reminiscent of Van Gogh, who Munch much admired. It is interesting to note that in 2010, a Madonna print attained the highest price ever recorded in the UK £1.25 million, double its estimated value.

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The Americans and Europeans have been great collectors of Munch prints and we can see why. The emotion they ignite in the viewer is immediate.

Jealousy for instance below. The bespectacled  man in the foreground stares out pale-faced at us, encased in a black background. His eyes express the shock and despair of one’s first encounter with sexual betrayal. It is a magnificent portrayal of perhaps the most destructive of emotions.

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Other prints depict other violent states of mind: madness, despair, separation and illness. All universally potent themes.Most moving was one of the few paintings in the exhibition showing a young woman lying, pale-faced and in profile against her pillow (see Title heading). Her mother, head bowed and hands clasped prays at her bedside. The print version is even more harrowing. The young woman, still in profile, is alone now staring out at death. It’s a haunting image for any adult to behold. Munch returned to the image of his consumptive sister often.

Unknown-1The British Museum prints on show make up part of the collection that Munch called The Frieze of Life.

Probably the most arresting and most notorious image he produced in this collection was the iconic Skrik (Shriek), or The Scream. The skull-like being holding his ears with his mouth wide-open caused a furore in Munch’s Berlin solo show. He was forced to wrap up his canvases and prints after only a week! The young artists however loved it as you would imagine they would latch on to anything so radically new and unsettling. 

The print in the exhibition is a rare, black and white lithograph. It includes a faint inscription, absent in the colour versions: ’I felt a great Scream pass through nature.’ Nature seen as the screamer puts a whole new slant on things and sends a chill through me now.

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Munch was very much buoyed by the controversy sparked off by The Scream at his Berlin show. He knew that such adverse publicity would launch him in the art world and he wasn’t wrong.

 

 

KH

 

The exhibition Edvard Munch: love and angst will run to 21 July 2019 in the Sir Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum.

Mary Quant retrospective at the V&A

The Victoria & Albert Museum always excels in its presentation of fashion – from the memorable Vivien Westwood exhibition back in 2004 to Balenciaga (2017) and the current blockbuster Dior show. Smaller in scale than the lavish Dior exhibition, but no less significant, this is the first international retrospective of iconic fashion designer Mary Quant, who, like Dior before her, shaped fashion and social mores for a new generation. Her colourful, witty clothes challenged conventions, encouraging women to abandon the traditional, ultra-feminine and often restrictive clothing of their mothers and grandmothers, and liberated them, literally and metaphorically, at a time when feminism and gender identity were of huge significance to many women (and men too) and social commentators. And by making her clothes accessible and affordable, she democratised fashion, prompting a retail revolution on the high street that has had a lasting impact today.

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Mary Quant at her apartment in Draycott Place, Chelsea, London, about 1965. Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

Quant herself personified the energy and fun of swinging London in the 1960s and as a successful designer and businesswoman, with a keen eye for promotion and the creation of a distinct corporate identity, she continually responded to and reflected the zeitgeist. She herself was the greatest ambassador for her brand, with her chic Vidal Sassoon haircut which matched the playful simplicity of her clothes.

The exhibition is organised chronolgically, beginning in post-war London and the opening in 1955 of Quant’s experimental shop Bazaar on the King’s Road. School girl pinafores and masculine tailoring, wittily “repurposed” for the female body, brought an entertaining and playful slant to fashion, at a time when dreary wartime utility clothing and clothes rationing were an all too recent memory. From these modest beginnings, Quant’s empire grew quickly into a wholesale brand available in department stores across the UK – the antithesis of couture and the beginning of mass-market fashion. With the widening of her empire into the US market, Quant’s clothing was accessible to a new generation of eager fashionistas.

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Three patterned ensembles, Mary Quant, 1964 – 1971, London ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In addition to the fashion displays, with many items drawn from the V&A’s own Mary Quant archive, there are photographs, films and other ephemera which set the clothing and the brand in context. Many of the outfits are displayed with a note about who owned and wore then, further connecting them to a real people rather than the couturier’s poker-faced mannequin. There are also displays of Quant’s make up range, with her iconic daisy logo, and the Daisy doll, her rival to Barbie, who wore doll-sized versions of some of Quant’s most recognisable clothes, from mini skirts and hot pants to baby doll dresses or full-length boho gowns.

It’s an enjoyable and uplifting show, and refreshing to note that few of the outfits on display appear dated; many of the shapes and styles, fabrics and tailoring are found in today’s fashion – especially fast-fashion – proof of both the enduring nature of “good” , democratic fashion, and Quant’s forward-looking artistic and business vision.

Until 16 February 2020, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Further information


FW

Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light

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The Spanish impressionist artist, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923), is little known outside of Spain. Half a million flocked to his retrospective at the Prado Museum in 2009. Meanwhile his house in Madrid, now the Sorolla Museum, has become a tourist destination and is best visited, I imagine, out of season.

And yet how strange to think that at the turn of the 20th Century, Sorolla, was considered to be one of the greatest living artists – Monet spoke of him as ‘the master of light’.

Born in Valencia, southern Spain, life for Sorolla had not always been so dandy. He lost both parents to cholera, aged two, and was brought up by a maternal aunt. His love of painting was however encouraged in the early years and following his military service, he managed to gain a scholarship to study painting in Rome.

It took him to Paris in 1885 where he was able to expose himself to contemporary painting. In 1889 he married Clotilde Garcia del Castillo, moved to Madrid and had had three children by her by 1895.

We are told at the exhibition that ‘he was a good family man.’ I admit to feeling my enthusiasm wane a little when I heard the guide say this to a group of journalists. I had just entered a room of domestic portraits and feared that the exhibition might be thereafter a tad dull! True, there was a charming oil canvas of his wife, Clotilde, in bed with Sorolla’s third child. Both mother and child were barely visible snuggling in snow-white sheets and covers.

Clotilde is much in evidence at the show, always impeccably dressed and graceful in hats and long, swirling dresses. By all accounts she stayed beautiful throughout her life.

The second room was infinitely more exciting and was devoted to Sorolla’s social realist works. Another Marguerite (1892) shows a woman clad in black, sitting down in a third-class carriage, her head bowed in shame. Behind her, two civil guards look on. A little light slants through a window, lighting a tiny part of her face, her cloth bag and the bare wooden seat in front. Marguerite, was a slang word for prostitutes in Valencia (Sorolla’s home town) or it could be a reference to the Marguerite in Goethe’s play, Faust, where the woman commits infanticide. The spartan interior conveys all the misery of the situation. It’s a good piece and won him his first Gold Medal in Madrid and then in Chicago.

Unknown-4Even more striking is Sad Inheritance (1899). A monk on a beach leads crippled children (polio victims or perhaps children born of syphilitic parents) to the water to bathe. The huge oil canvas fills a wall. The work is heartrending, the boys so painfully thin and vulnerable in their nakedness. Several are blind and their progression towards the sea is laborious. I returned to this canvas several times. By all accounts Sorolla found the scene distressing and after painting these boys never returned to such a painful subject.

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Other social realist paintings, Sewing the Sail (1896), are more optimistic in outlook. A family gathers around a rolled-out sail. It is early afternoon, the sun filters through the veranda and gathers in the sail’s voluptuous folds. (See Title picture)

Packing Raisins (1900) is an equally lovely, peaceful composition, this time women workers are pictured labouring in a cool interior. Fierce sunlight slants through a window reminding us of its presence.

A room of dark portraits followed. The old master Velasquez was very much in evidence here, especially in Sorolla’s painting of his children – Mis hijos (1904).

A room entitled Sunlight and Sea took my breath away. Monet was right; Sorolla’s mastery of painting light on water is second to none. But it was not only that which struck me. Sorolla, I believe, is one of the few artists, who really know how to paint children. In Boys on the Beach (1909) prepubescent boys lie face down on the sand naked. It is a marvellous composition of harmonising hues: violet (for the shallow waters), straw yellow for a boy’s hair and sand, pink and white for the boys’ glistening skin. In Afternoon at the Beach in Valencia (1904), boys paddle in the shallows towards a back-lit horizon of late afternoon sun. The shimmering composition is nothing short of stunning.

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Sorella painted these beach scenes straight off with no preliminary sketches. It is why the brushwork feels fluid, flowing and natural. They were the highlight of the show.

Between 1911 and 1919, Sorolla was commissioned by the Hispanic Society of America in New York to create a body of mural-like work entitled Vision of Spain.

Room Five in the exhibition contains four large studies of people in traditional costume. Seen separately the canvases have little impact. I only know this because I then searched Sorolla’s Vision of Spain on YouTube and watched a detailed film of what is on show at the Hispanic Society in New York. Only then can you fully appreciate the monumental murals Sorolla produced.

The artist was on the road for 8 years. He exhausted himself carrying out the commission but he was determined to capture a way of life that would soon disappear.

Two world wars and a civil war later, Spain was never quite the same.

Sorolla was long gone, having died in 1923.

His panoramic vision of Spain however lives on now that the National Gallery has taken up his cause.

 

 

KH

 

 

 

Sorolla : Spanish Master of Light runs until 7 July 2019. Sainsbury Wing. National Gallery.

The Sorolla Museum, Madrid, might be worth a visit.

To see Sorolla’s Vision of Spain murals: Hispanic Society of America. Upper Manhattan, New York.

 

 

 

Parr Displaying His Humanity at National Portrait Gallery

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Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Martin Parr/Magnum Photos/Rocket Gallery

In the same week I watched Don McCullin, photographer extraordinaire, take pictures of fox hunts and Eastbourne in the rain, in the BBC’s Looking for Britain, I find myself at Martin Parr’s Only Human show at the National Portrait Gallery.

In it, Parr also explores identity and what it is to be British.

McCullin has been lugging his old cameras for far longer than Parr. Nearly two decades separate the two men in age. When Parr was about to leave Manchester Polytechnic in 1973, where he studied photography, McCullin (best known for his war photography) had already documented homelessness and gangland London, as well as life in the failing northern mining towns. The images were lovingly hand-produced by McCullin in monochrome in his studio.

To this day McCullin chooses to print in black and white, which give his images a timeless quality. His retrospective at Tate Britain at the moment is a joy to behold.

By contrast, Parr, arguably Britain’s most famous documentary photographer of the British (certainly he seems the most prolific having produced many books over the years on the subject), has fully embraced colour. Think of Polaroid colours, and then a hundred times more vivid!

The central theme of Parr’s show is Brexit Britain in all its garishness.  Colour works especially well in this context, setting each image in a particular time and place.

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Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country. 2017. Martin Parr

Nationalistic images such as Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich pack a punch. A man and a woman, draped in the St George flag, lean against a low, turreted wall. In the foreground, a benign-looking white dog stares at the camera. He has been dressed up in a red jacket emblazoned with a small shield. On a lead, which resembles a chain, he looks vulnerable. The more you focus on the dog, the more you feel sorry for the innocent animal and understand Parr’s intentions.

Even more telling of Parr’s uneasiness regarding Brexit is Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017 (see Title photograph)  On a sunny day, people gather on the shoreline of a beach. They have their backs to us and stare out to sea.  Just one little boy has turned back to the camera. He is minuscule next to a red flag flying at full mast over his head. The strange thing in this image is that the sea doesn’t look rough. Have the holidaymakers been hoodwinked into believing in the dangers of the unknown? (ie foreignness across the seas)

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Another photograph captured my attention. Not really to do with Brexit but with  Parr’s on-going exploration of identity and class. We are presented with two images of a  Harrow school boy, one in uniform and top hat, the other, he is covered head to toe in mud after a football match which he has won. I thought he was in fact a statue at first!

An image of a school youth of a different order draws my attention. A peroxide-headed young man with a Goth or New Romantic haircut leans over his work at the renowned Christ Hospital School, known for its outstanding music programme.  He could be a scholarship youth – we don’t know. All we can see is the hair, which hangs down like a straggly curtain. Here we get the sense of a world-class school opening its doors to creativity and diversity.

 

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The show spreads out into other rooms: celebrity portraits which if you go to the National Portrait Gallery, you have all seen before. Vivienne Westwood stands out and Gordon Banks sitting down in his chintz sitting room.

In another room Parr shows the British, drinking or at play. It is a little predicable, except for the woman at the Aintree races, dressed entirely in shocking pink. She’s carrying her own supply of champagne in a plastic cool bag. Glasses, programme, bumble gum pink pompom scarf, and clashing red handbag. The cropping (we only see her from the neck down) gives this picture several interpretations. Either the headless woman is to be lauded for having her own idiosyncratic style or she is being exposed as having no taste. She has come to the races to get plastered and intends to completely ignore the race. Who knows?

 

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There was an extraordinary room dedicated to Martin Parr’s self-portraits that he has made throughout his career. For 30 years he has visited studio photographers, street photographers and photo booth across the globe. I find his obsession with his own image both curious but understandable. Like so many photographers who have spent so much of their lives hidden behind the camera, Parr has wanted to keep a personal record .

Particularly bizarre were the Photo Escultura– shrine-like carved photo-sculptures based on Parr. These were quite amusing and were commissioned by the last traditional craftsman specialised in them, in Mexico City.

 

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It was an odd finale to an exhibition on Britishness, as was the pop up seaside café complete with Battenburg cake and the National portrait shop full of Parr pseudo retro memorabilia. Would you buy flip-flops superimposed with Parr’s feet?

 

Most strange. But we have to allow for his eccentricities. It is exactly these peculiarities, which make Martin Parr human!

 

 

 

KH

 

 

Martin Parr: Being Human is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May 2019

 

 

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning

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Diane Arbus in Washington Square Park, New York City, 1967. Photograph: John Gossage

 

Diane Arbus remains a giant in the photography world. Her suicide at the age of 48 has contributed to her legendary status. Hailed as a tormented genius, much has been written about her psychological fragility and her obsession with documenting New York’s outcasts.

She wasn’t the first to focus on the rough bars, strippers and burlesque performers. Documentary photography was well established as a genre by the time Arbus took to the streets in 1956, leaving the world of fashion photography behind her. Many male photographers had already revealed the underbelly of New York society. Magnificent photographers like Walker Evans, Weegee, Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, all of whom Arbus much admired. Her way of working however was different.

Whereas her male colleagues sought to make themselves invisible to the subjects they snapped, going to great lengths to bury their cameras inside their coats or install false lenses, Diane made no effort to hide what she was doing.

It was hard for her at first. She was of a shy disposition, a lone woman. She had to conquer her fears, her prejudices in pursuit of her art. She struck up conversations with the people she photographed. Some of the relationships she formed with them lasted for years.

In a show entitled diane arbus: In the beginning, the Hayward Gallery, with the aid of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has focused on Diane Arbus’s early years, when she was prolific and trying to develop her own particular brand of portraiture.

The first room of the show surprises with the compact sized black and white prints Arbus produced herself. Arbus’s images are smaller than an A4 size sheet of paper but are displayed artfully on separate rectangular panels. Very soon my eye adjusts to their dimensions.  Arbus’s subjects appear in half-shadow in bars, shabby hotel rooms and burlesque shows. I soon grow restless. Have I seen too many of these sorts of photographs over the years? I remind myself that at the time, Arbus’s photographs of female impersonators making up in front of a mirror would have been groundbreaking and shocking.

However the daylight shots catch my eye. Kid in black face, NYC 1957 stops me in my tracks. A blacked up boy in the street. Is he going to a black and white minstrel birthday party? Has he fallen down a coal hole? The only white we can see is the slits of his eyes, his lips and a slither of shirt. An arm is tugging at his shoulder. Not only is the image shocking but it is mysterious.

In Five members of The Monster Fan Club NYC1961 a group of boys sit on the front steps of a house. The humorous title shows Arbus in a more playful mood but then we focus on the sinister masks.

images-2Arbus was a devoted mother but her pictures of children are for the main part unsettling. Child teasing another. NYC 1960 is at first charming but the more you look, the more the little boy hunching his shoulders as an older girl whispers in his ear, looks uncomfortable.

 

Child teasing another, N.Y.C. 1960

 

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With ‘Girl and governess with baby carriage, 1962, a blonde toddler pushes her own baby carriage in a park. Alongside her governess, neatly dressed in a winter coat, hat and sensible handbag helps her push the carriage along. Far on the horizon the New York skyscrapers rise up in the early morning mist. Here the mood is nostalgic rather than uneasy.

It makes me think of the biography I have just read on Diane Arbus. Arbus felt neglected by her parents growing up in New York. Her father David Nemerov, owned an opulent department store in Fifth Avenue. Intent on keeping up appearances, her father was always working and entertaining. Her mother meanwhile, the beautiful Gertrude Nemerov, spent her time shouting at the servants in their grand apartment or chatting on the phone. The only person who seemed to show any interest in Diane was Mamselle, a cool, undemonstrative, beautiful French governess. Seven-year-old Diane loved her walks in Central Park with her and was inconsolable when her nanny left the Nemerov household.

There is no doubt that this picture meant something to Diane. It speaks of security and growing independence under the watchful eye of a loving, responsible adult. It speaks of snatched moments of happiness in an otherwise lonely childhood.

The iconic Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park 1962 follows. A bony-legged boy with claw-like fingers grips a grenade in his right hand. I know where I’ve seen those wild-staring eyes before – in war photography. This famous picture still packs a punch. The larger square format Diane uses marks a change in direction. Using a Rolleiflex camera she has now produces direct eye contact with her subject.

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Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C 1962. 

The exhibition builds up to a crescendo in a separate gallery entitled A box of ten photographs. These last images taken by Arbus in the late 60s and early 70s form the pinnacle of her work. Identical twins, a giant stooping over his tiny parents in their sitting room. A couple in a nudist camp, the man sitting in an armchair with his legs apart. Young parents with children – their little boy is blind. A Mexican dwarf, sitting up in bed and proudly displaying his smooth chest. The subjects seem more at ease in front of Arbus’s camera, as if now, they have come of age.

Sadly these beautiful photographs were developed after Diane’s death for a retrospective of her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This is a thought-provoking show but for me it was lacking in something. That something was more about Diane Arbus herself. The catalogue on sale contains her notebooks where she scrawls her inner thoughts. It would have been useful to have these on display.

An American friend of mine recently spoke of an Arbus retrospective in San Francisco way back in 2003. At the show they had reconstructed Arbus’s studio, showed her working notes, cameras and also the books she read for inspiration. I would have loved to have had glimpses of her inner world.

That said, the Hayward has produced a neat exhibition with a clear purpose. Some of the photographs on display have never been shown in Europe before and they clearly chart Arbus’s evolution from street photographer to a portrait artist of immense vision.

 

KH

 

diane arbus: in the beginning runs until 6thMay 2019 at the Hayward Gallery.

If you want to learn more about Arbus’s life : Diane Arbus, a biography by Patricia Bosworth is an excellent read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SCANDI-NOIR IN SE21: Harald Sohlberg the Dulwich Art Gallery

Ah, Norway. Fjords, trolls, Ibsen; and birthplace in 1869 of Harald Sohlberg, whose atmospheric and alluring landscapes are on exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery until June. If you like Scandi-noir, you will love this.

Norway, like Switzerland, has one of the most beautiful and (you would think) artistically inspiring landscapes on earth; so it’s a puzzle why both countries have produced so few landscape painters. Most of us, I think, would be hard put to come up with the name of any Norwegian painter, beyond that of Munch. Munch was Sohlberg’s contemporary, and there are similarities between the two – the influence of the Symbolists such as Paul Gauguin (much as both men might have denied it); but above all, in this show, the influence of the Norwegian landscape itself. Snow-covered mountains glowing under the Nordic moon, legions of pine-trees, and that Scandinavian relish, product of the long monochrome winters, for deep, vivid colour – red-painted houses, leaning under the weight of snow, the glow of a sunset, distant hills of hallucinogenic violet, and the gold of a candle-lit window. Sohlberg also does a particularly wonderful job of getting onto canvas the luminescence and the colours of the midnight sun, a phenomenon which is completely unbelievable if you haven’t seen it for real, but Sohlberg catches it perfectly. His Fisherman’s Cottage of 1906 is a sort of summation of these traits, and of the cleverness with which his paintings are constructed. The foreshore dips down, the trees, painted with such thick impasto that their trunks have cracked, have just enough space between them to let you through, and there is the little bright cottage, inviting you come in from the cold.

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Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage, 1906, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edward Byron Smith.

Sohlberg initially trained as a painter of scenery and there is a scenic sense of layering in his works. The foregrounds have that hyper-detailed, Rackham-esque quality; the mid-ground lures you to walk down that path or up that road; in the distance there is some vast new vista to aim for. You can see exactly why his paintings lend themselves so well to being cover-images for novels; thrillers in particular, perhaps. And nothing in them is there by accident. Winter on the Balcony, perhaps the same balcony from which the artist watched the midnight sun, is so lightly painted that the squaring-up of the canvas is still visible, as is the care with which Sohlberg constructed the wooden exterior of the building and the balcony itself – the tightness of their carpentry hinting at the meticulousness with which you had to create habitations for yourself in this landscape and this weather. There is a sense in these works of the landscape giving form to thought, a quality that puts you in mind immediately of the similarly curious, almost uninhabited cityscapes of Atkinson Grimshaw.

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Harald Sohlberg, Street in Røros in Winter, 1903, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway.

Sohlberg’s drawings are as cunningly constructed as his paintings. There are two drawings in particular in this show – one, the side of a clapboard cottage in charcoal and pencil, and the other, of a girl, a rare inhabitant, looking over a fence in a backyard – that are quite breathtaking. The backyard is one little world, yet behind it there rears the impervious façade of a 19th-century apartment block, so that you have the entire life and history of a city in just three elements. Sohlberg was painting at a time when the rural industries of Norway – fishing, mining, and the landscapes they existed in – were being transformed by the technological changes of the early 20thcentury, and while there is no consciousness in any of these works of the revolutions and conflict that were going on in the rest of Europe at the time, they have an undertone; there are details that unsettle and perturb. Night, Roros Church, for example, painted looking down into the sleeping town, seems so peaceful, and there is that one comforting beam of light coming from a window at the top of the church itself, but then you look at the tombstones scattered over the uneven ground before you, the rough black crosses, and you realize where the artist had placed himself – back here, amongst the dead.

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Harald Sohlberg, Night, Røros Church, 1903, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Dulwich is on something of a roll with exhibitions such as this – first showings, unexpected works, and unexpected artists, too. There was Escher in 2015, Tove Jansson in 2017, Jusepe de Ribera and Edward Bawden in 2018, and now Sohlberg is another – and another not to miss.

Harald Sohlberg, Dulwich Picture Gallery to 2 June

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At top: Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1914, The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway.

Don McCullin

Don McCullin, who has a fair claim to the title of the UK’s greatest living photographer, was born in 1935 in Finsbury Park – a bloody tough area of London before the war, and even more so after, when much of it had been bombed flat. The first photograph McCullin was paid for, in 1958, and almost the first exhibit in the Tate’s monumental and unmissable retrospective of his work, was of a neighbourhood gang, peacocking within the exposed rooms of a bombed-out house. This particular gang had been implicated in the stabbing of a local bobby, which gives you two of the most significant themes in McCullin’s photography right there: first, that the more things change, the more they stay the same; and second, that his photographs so often deal with those in uniform confronted by those who are not. Another early shot shows a woman-protestor in late middle-age being carried away from one of the Aldermaston marches by two policeman, both young enough to be her sons, with all three protagonists in the scene registering the ridiculousness of it; and so is the photographer. McCullin’s upbringing was also bloody tough, which could affect you in one of two ways: it could mean you joined one of those knifed-up gangs (in the Finsbury Park of the 1950s, white), or it could foster in you a sense of humour, and of empathy and respect for those around you, whoever they may be. McCullin operates ‘not as a photographer but as a human being,’ he tells us, in the praiseworthily intelligent wall-text to the show. He calls his task ‘being there’, and there is much in his work to make you think of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Cartier-Bresson’s maxim of ‘the decisive moment.’ But McCullin leaves his subjects with a dignity even in death that is, perhaps, unique to him.

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The Guvnors in their Sunday Suits, Finsbury Park, London, 1958

McCullin credits his experiences photographing the Turkish invasion of Cyprus with the development of his sense of empathy with his subjects, but really it’s there from the first, from his early morning image of sheep being driven down the Caledonian Road to a slaughterhouse (McCullin is a terrific photographer of animals, too) to his record of the Berlin Wall going up – the workers toiling away, digging its foundations while being bossed by soldiers in greatcoats (what resonance that combination in that place has, in particular), and the weight of sorrow on the faces of women in the crowd in West Berlin, watching the Wall rise. It’s there too in his photographs of the conflict in the Congo in the early 1960s, especially a sequence of four teenage boys, one already wounded and bandaged, being tormented by soldiers as a prelude to being shot. Everything in the bandaged boy’s face speaks of his determination to rise above the soldier’s behavior.

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Sheep going to the slaughter house, early morning, near Caledonian Road, London 1953

Congo in the early 1960s was the political background to Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible. You sense the presence of McCullin’s images behind her writing just as you can see their influence on the 2015 movie Beasts of No Nation. It is astonishing how many of our most iconic images of conflict and human suffering this one man has caught for the rest of us – the shell-shocked GI in Vietnam, the stampeding British soldiers in a Londonderry street; but then McCullin himself talks of his debt to the 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, and Goya’s images of the Spanish Peninsular War. Conflict, and its costs, and the type of people who end up bearing most of those costs, change very little from age to age, and there is at present a particularly awful relevance to these images: in the headlines this morning the perilous consequences for all of us in reinstating a hard border in Ireland; and Trump, sabre-rattling over sending troops into Venezuela

McCullin is now 83 years old, but to say he would reach his eighties would at many moments in his career have sounded ridiculous. One of the very few non-photographic exhibits in the Tate show is the camera that stopped the bullet meant for McCullin at Prey Veng, east of Phnom Penh, in 1968. Like one of those fabled cigarette cases or bibles from the Great War, it’s an artifact that meant one thing and registers now on an altogether different scale. Another series of photographs, from Cambodia, records the last moments of the young man who had been standing in front of McCullin when a shell exploded near enough to pelt them both with shrapnel. Evacuated together by truck from the scene of the shell-strike, McCullin knew when the man had died by the inert rhythm of his feet, bouncing against the floor of the truck. ‘That could have been my corpse rattling there,’ reflects McCullin, who has as resonant a way with words as he has with a camera.

You wonder how McCullin survived not shells and bullets but the emotional cost of a life spent behind enemy lines. There is a case to be made, looking at his photographs, that he didn’t, that for so painfully engaged a photographer, each photograph he took became as much one of his demons as it was his attempt to defend himself against them. This is not an easy show to view by any means; it’s very long, with a room per chapter of the life, pretty much, and it includes photographs no newspaper would publish then or now. But those images are there because the people in them deserve, as the photographer says, a life beyond his archive.

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The Theatre in the Roman city of Palmyra, partly destroyed by Islamic State fighters, 2017

Aside from all its other qualities, the Tate show demonstrates what a master-technician MCullin is. All the prints are silver-gelatin, printed by the photographer himself, and you have never seen blacks so deep, midtones so lambent or brights so dazzling. There is one view in particular, down the valley of a stream near McCullin’s house, the banks starred with snowdrops, the branches nearest to the photographer as black as veins of blood, that is stand-out wonderful. But even now, when landscape has become one of his major subjects, in shots of Hadrian’s Wall or of Glencoe, there is still the memory of conflict, with enormous, gleaming clouds doing battle above the Somerset wetlands and the fields themselves as dark as those of the Somme. McCullin is a hell of a photographer simply of dirt: the banks of that stream, for example; a mud-spattered infantryman; a grimy, starving child; or decades earlier the dirt surrounding a homeless man sleeping on the ground in Spitalfields, surrounded by derelict Georgian buildings that are now, no doubt, million-pound homes. The man’s body seems to be sinking into the dirt, or it is already rising up mercifully to cover him. The late, late still-lifes, of mushrooms or plums from McCullin’s own garden, tiny good things, seem a part of this homage to the earth, to a world that carries on regardless. The show ends with McCullin’s images of what has been left of battered, shattered Palmyra, since ISIS left the city in its wake. These are the photographs an older man might take, of a conflict that has passed on. ‘I can’t explain why I must turn everything into a somber dark image,’ McCullin says, of his own late work, but thank goodness he can’t. If he could, maybe he would have stopped making these images long ago.  JCH

Don McCullin, Tate Britain, until 6 May 2019

Top: Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam, 1968

All images courtesy of Don McCullin