The Art of Recycling: THE ROYAL ACADEMY SUMMER EXHIBITION 2019

When you think about it, it’s a strange sort of job, being a reviewer. There we are, exerting all our writerly skills to create on the page the experience of attending an exhibition, doing all we can to help you decide if it’s one for you, and if it is, zhuzhing you up to buy that ticket now, now, now; when the exhibition you will experience is inevitably going to be entirely different to the one we work so hard to bring to life for you.

These philosophical musings were prompted by the Press View for this year’s RA Summer Exhibition  – which, with its whiff of the London season, the cocktail party and the 19th-century Paris salon, is always a bit of an oddity in any case, and all the better for it, IMHO. Attend the show as a punter and you will be shuffling round shoulder to shoulder, shouting to make yourself heard; and whether you intend it or no, being shoved constantly one way or the other in your judgement of the works on display by the all-important splatter of red dots they do (or don’t) carry, as just to add to its novelty, the Summer Exhibition is also a buying show. So there’s a whole vital level of engagement available to you, the visitor, which is not accessible to us reviewers at all, unless of course we wish to drop the persona of objective professional, and start squealing with excitement over the one work that has just summoned us across the room with its siren cry of ‘Take me home or you’ll never forgive yourself.’ (If you want to experience the most ruinous thing you can do to your personal finances, catch the germ for buying art. Trust me, I know whereof I speak, and so does my bank manager.)

In place of all that, us reviewers get sepulchral hush, unless and until the curator starts speaking, and no over-excited crowds of punters at all. Doesn’t sound anything like as much fun, does it? Not a solitary red dot, either, unless you count Cornelia Parker’s distinctly cheeky print of three diminishing empty frames, freckled with pseudo red dots as part of the work itself.

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Jock McFadyenPoor Mother, Oil on canvas 151 x 211 cm, Photo: Lucid Plane

The Summer Exhibition this year, the RA’s 251st, which opens on the 10thJune, has been curated (or ‘co-ordinated’, as the RA puts it), by the painter Jock McFadyen. Grayson Perry was in charge last year, and Grayson now has the sort of Living National Treasure status otherwise only accorded to Stephen Fry and Sir David Attenborough, so yes, he’s a hard act to follow. Whether by accident or design, however, the show this year takes the public temperature in a rather intriguing way. Walk in, and the mass of sculptures that greet you in the Wohl Central Hall, and the paintings surrounding them, are all inspired in some way by our relationship with all the other species with whom we share this planet. I’ve just published a book – The Animal’s Companion – that explores this very subject via the lens of the pet-owner and their history, and it’s unmistakable, how much the imperiled nature of our relationship with the natural world is uppermost in the human hive-mind at present, and certainly in the minds of those making the selection for the show – 16,000 works, whittled down to 1,500.  The curation this year is old-school, earnest, and present – themes repeat from one wall to the next, and from one gallery to the next as well, sending you from one piece to another and then (the shoulder-to-shoulder business of being there not for the Press View permitting) back to check on something that snagged your eye somewhere else altogether; but then that’s exactly what curation should do.

Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of ArtsOne of the great good things about the RA show is that it exposes you to everything, that’s its point – the excellent, the proficient; the bad, the alarming; the naff, the kitsch, the clichéd. There are, for example, at least three different ‘murmurations’ of seagulls, one of them repurposing the background to Fragonard’s Girl on a Swing. There are two works that use the

woodgrain of woodblock to create ripples of water, of sand, or clouds of pollution. There’s an homage to Clara the rhinoceros (just visible at top) who so entranced Venice in the 18thcentury. There’s recycling, if you like, of ideas from the past – Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow becomes people walking their dogs on snowbound Richmond Park. This being Brexit Britain, there’s a Banksy. There are slightly less than the predictable number of female nudes, and (predictably again) just about no male nudes at all, unless you count the gentlemen disporting themselves top-right in Claire Douglass’s recycling of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Of portraits there are very few – until you walk behind a spur wall, and there they all are. Portraiture was once what the Paris salons were all about. Now art is – and it truly is – Kate McGwire’s Viscera, a giant intertwined knot covered in pheasant feathers that make it look as if it’s perpetually slithering over itself; and a nightmarish installation of oversize crows, made out of torn, melted, half-decayed bin-liners, with a soundtrack of inane human burble that resolves itself into Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ speech, only to disintegrate anew. And there are three miniature sky-boats, held in mid-air, like airborne Noah’s Arks of ecological rescue, sailing off into some happier future where their intervention might be no longer necessary.

Tony Bevan RA, TREE (PP1845), Acrylic and charcoal on paper, 85 x 121 cm, Courtesy of the artist

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It’s part of the British summer to decry the RA Summer Exhibition as pointless and hackneyed, just as it is the NPG Portrait Award, but that shoulder-to-shoulder shuffle carries on regardless. People come here to see art, to engage with art, to comment at deafening volume on art, and some of them even buy art. All of them have a damn good time. And one of the other great good things about the RA Summer Exhibition is the little book they produce listing all the works in the show. This is un-illustrated, and the listings are as basic as can be – but no bloody app, for people to pour over, heads down, whilst the art goes past them unseen. There will be a website, once the show opens, but if you want to see the art as art, let alone as retail therapy, you gotta go see the art. And you gotta applaud that.

JCH

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2019 sponsored by Insight Investment

10thJune – 12 August 2019

Top image: The Wohl Central Hall. Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

Leonardo da Vinci. A Life in Notebooks

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Study of Fetus in the Womb circa 1511

 

Part artist, part scientist, Da Vinci embodies the Renaissance man par excellence.

Luckily for us, the workings of his inner mind in painting, sculpture, anatomy, military engineering and cartography have all been recorded in the notebooks he kept throughout his life.

One of these notebooks made it into the Queen’s Royal Collection during Charles II’s reign. For hundreds of years following, the 550 drawings were carefully preserved in the Print room at Windsor castle.

To mark the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death, 200 of these drawings have travelled up to London for a show entitled Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing at the Queen’s Gallery, London.

Leonardo began his career as an apprentice artist, a garzone, aged 14, working for the eminent Florentine painter and sculptor Verrocchio. Under his inspirational master’s wing, he was exposed to both theoretical training and a wide range of technical skills, including drafting, chemistry, metal work, plaster casting, leather work, mechanics, woodwork, as well as drawing, painting and modelling. 

To complement their education in the human body, Verrochio’s pupils were sent down to the local hospital to perform dissections. For Da Vinci it was a revelation, setting him along the path of scientific observation.  

At the show the anatomical section is the most fascinating. Da Vinci’s documentation of muscles, nerves and vessels demonstrate the artist’s investigation into the  mechanics of movement. 

The act of procreation also preoccupies the polymath as you would expect. His artistic representation of coitus is both intriguing and poetic. Man’s ‘material’ is seen to enter the female uterus, and in Da Vinci’s drawing, it is the man’s brain which baptises it with an ‘animal element’ or soul. Meanwhile woman, the receptacle of the man’s offering, gives her soul to the child via her spinal cord.

Further on in the show, da Vinci’s dissection of a uterus reveals a mature foetus  (see heading). Beautifully drafted, it is unsettling to think of the circumstances in which Da Vinci captured nature’s best kept secret. Burying its head in its hands, its placenta snaking around its back and thigh, the baby is both immaculate and lifeless.

Other highlights were Da Vinci’s outstanding botany drawings, the map of the Tuscan valley he drew up as a military engineer and cartographer, and finally a sculptural project for the Duke of Milan.

Da Vinci was commissioned to make a bronze equestrian statue to honour one of the Duke’s forebears. Unfortunately only the clay version survived until it was destroyed by French soldiers when they invaded Milan. As for the bronze required for the colossal equine cast totalling 75 tons, it was used instead for the production of cannon balls.

The theme of unfinished works is a reoccurring one with da Vinci. Personal procrastination and  destruction seem to have blighted da Vinci’s existence. It is really poignant to think that though Leonardo was revered in his day as a painter, he was only able to complete 20 paintings.

The exhibition does give us the opportunity to view the preparatory sketches for several of the most famous works, The Last Supper for instance. The relatively unknown (The) Head of Leda was the main attraction at the show however.

Da Vinci’s charming sketches of a beautiful young woman with Renaissance hair, plaited, rolled and trained and seen from all angles, is enchanting. Da Vinci worked on the painting for the last 15 years of his life. It entered the French Royal Collection but had to be destroyed due to its ruinous state.

 

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Head of Leda 1504-1505

 

For me, The Head of Leda’s studies are a precious record of what could have been da Vinci’s greatest painting of all.

All in all, I found this an inspiring show and one which leaves you wanting more.

KH

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing runs until October 2019 at the Queen’s Gallery, London.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOVE IN A CREATIVE CLIMATE

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Artistic duos tend not to receive the attention they deserve in art history. We often read about the art movements and the artists who create them. The artist’s partner or lover meanwhile is often overlooked, or simply seen in terms of a muse.

An ambitious exhibition at the Barbican, entitled Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde seeks to explore the subject of couples and to show how spouses and lovers have had a lot more to bring to the creative pot.

I stepped in room 1 of the show where the pairings of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel and Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp were considered. Both couples had passionate affairs – it seemed a good place to start.

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I was called upon to contemplate Auguste Rodin’s exuberant sculpture, Je Suis Belle. A beautiful naked young woman, bunched up into a ball, is held aloft by a tall, muscle-bound Adonis (In reality Auguste Rodin was small and lame!) The energy of the piece perfectly encapsulates love’s rapture and exemplifies Rodin’s superhuman passion for his eighteen-year old assistant.

Camille Claudel’s letters on display reveal her minx-like hold over him in the early years of their affair. In one she asks Rodin to buy her a two-piece bathing suit in serge from Bon Marché so that she can swim in the lake and avoid the public baths! And to excite him further she states: ‘I go to bed naked every night to make me think you’re here’.

The correspondence in this show is riveting  and should not be overlooked even though it may slow your progress through the rooms!

Though the odds were stacked against Claudel, she was a mere woman after all, Claudel’s talent was recognised by her mature lover. He allowed her to fashion the hands and feet of his statues. In the show we see the clay head Claudel produced of him. I found it disappointing and decided to go to the Rodin museum next time I was in Paris to investigate further.

I turned to another female artist, Maria Martins, occupying the same room. Before meeting Marcel Duchamp in New York in March 1943, she was already a sculptor in her own right. Her bronze cast entitled  Le Couple , produced in the same year, is impressive. Two animalistic male-female forms rear up and spew tendrils. Their bodies arch away from each other (Martins as a married woman clearly had some reservations about the affair!) In contrast, Marcel Duchamp’s artistic offering is less showy. Five mysterious artefacts are displayed in a glass case. One resembles part of a bronze shoe, Feuille de Vigne, 1950. I read the explanation and find that it is in fact an imprint of Martins’s female genitalia! The five pieces together are all imprints of Martins intimate parts. They are strangely elegant, oddly moving.

 

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Sexual desire and the artistic impulse are of course closely linked. I am drawn to the Surrealist section entitled Mad Love where André Breton, founder of the movement, encourages his male followers to go out into the street in search of love. Breton saw women as innately ‘surrealist’. The theme of the female muse resurges. The women associated with Surrealist artists were no shrinking violets however. In the photographs they come across as wild and free. In one they are relaxing at a picnic, sheets draped over their  intimate parts. Their male friends meanwhile are fully clothed! The photograph is no doubt the surrealist take on Manet’s painting,  Dejeuner sur L’Herbe.

One of these women is the American photographer Lee Miller. Early on in her career she teamed up with avant-garde artist Man Ray. In the show they occupy a room of their own. Their homage to the Marquis de Sade seems tongue in cheek. A very young Miller wears a thick iron collar around her neck. In another very strange image Lee Miller and Man Ray have placed a glass dome over their heads! I can’t help but laugh!

Lee Miller’s photographs could also be moving and poignant. In the Dora Maar-Picasso section, we see an older Dora Maar sitting alone in her apartment looking into space. In the centre of the picture hangs a painting Picasso made of her. It is a rare portrait of her facing out at the viewer (rather than in profile), and it is the only portrait she liked of herself. She dismissed the others as ‘lies’. They may be ‘lies’ but Picasso’s Portrait de Femme 1938, of Maar, is still a wonder to behold on an adjacent wall, as is Frida Kahlo’s oil painting entitled The Wounded Deer 1946 located in the same room

 

 

To counterbalance the theme of suffering female artists, Maar’s own photo images of Picasso have been included in the show. A glass plate negative of Picasso caught my eye. Around his face Maar has scratched a halo or crown of thorns of black ink. It gives the painter the air of a saint or more worryingly, the appearance of Jesus Christ bound for crucifixion. It is unusual to see Picasso objectified in this way. So much with Picasso was on his terms.

Alma Mahler in another room seems to be made of sterner stuff. The exhibition focuses on her relationship with husband Gustav Mahler and lover Oskar Kokoschka. Long suffering muse, she was not! A photograph of her shows a Valkyrien woman in a corseted dress and dark, expressive eyes.  She was a talented pianist and composer when she met Mahler. It is surprising to read therefore that at the beginning of her marriage to Mahler she gave up her musical career at his request. It was a big mistake of course; outwardly acquiescing, Alma soon grew bitter. When she was on the point of running off with Bauhaus architect Gropius, Mahler agreed to play and help publish his wife’s lieder which are on show.

 The painter Kokoschka, seven years her junior, filled the void after Mahler’s death. ‘He painted me, me, me!’ Alma Mahler exclaims in a quote on the wall. Kokoschka joined up as a soldier in WW1, perhaps to escape her intensity and jealous nature. On his return however he underwent a change of heart. By then Alma had gravitated towards Gropius again. Kokoschka spent the next few years trying to win her back. The painted fans he produced, depicting their life together, are on display on one wall. We read about a doll he had made in her image. ‘I must have you for my wife or my genius will self-destruct’, he says in a letter. Alma’s power over men was astounding!

The Sapphic section entitled Chloe liked Olivia, was not only illuminating but revealed a whole host of new writers for me such as Natalie-Clifford Barney and painter Romaine Brooks. I was already aware of the love affair between blue stocking Virginia Woolf and aristocrat Vita-Sackville West, but it was interesting to learn of the influence each woman had on the other’s work. The desire Sackville-West ignited in Woolf powered Woolf’s Orlando. In this tale a young man transforms into a woman and retains his love for women. Sackville-West’s writing meanwhile became more experimental. Her book Seducers in Ecuador is on display together with Orlando and Woolf’s wonderful extended essay, A Room of One’s Own.

By the time I reached the painter Klimt and designer and fashion muse Emily Flöge (also fascinating if I had had more time) I was replete with information. I had only covered the first floor of the exhibition! (There are two!)

The show warrants a whole afternoon with two tea breaks!

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Modern Couples is an exhilarating show. A real curatorial tour de force. I am now keen to read up about L’Académie des Femmes (the feminine equivalent of the all-male literary Académie Française), and to explore the art of lesbian painter Romaine Brooks whose self-portraits reveal a growing confidence in her new sexuality. From a timid, thin-faced girl in a graceless hat she evolves into a beautiful, bright-eyed woman with wind-swept hair. I felt happy for her.

Hats off to the Barbican for a thought-provoking and rich experience! Worth joining the Barbican Centre membership scheme methinks!

 

KH

 

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is on at the Barbican (Floor 3) until 27 Jan.

 

 

 

 

 

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?

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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.