Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Tacita Dean: Film

I walked over Hungerford Bridge yesterday because I wanted to get to the south bank of the Thames. I didn't want to stay on the north side with all the traffic and noise.

I'd enjoyed lunch earlier in Soho at the Freelance Media Group's monthly meeting and it was great fun chatting and eating especially as it's held at the Groucho Club. Then I had a quick catch up with my friend who helps runs the group over a cup of tea in a nearby café.

When we parted company what I really wanted was some silence and inactivity. As I walked over Hungerford Bridge a heavy mist settled over the Thames and I could barely see the outlines of office buildings behind St Paul's Cathedral. And with the mist came silence. I turned left at the Festival Hall and walked along the river bank towards Blackfriars Bridge. There were few people around and the Christmas Market stalls, not yet open for business, were being decorated with tinsel and lights. In a few days time I'll be able to buy gingerbread, clothing, bags, notebooks made from recycled paper and more food than I can point a stick at but not yesterday or indeed today.

There was a lone busker singing along to digital music stored on her laptop. It sounded quite pleasant but I walked passed without throwing any change in her cap. There were a few second hand book stalls set up outside the British Film Institute. I had a brief look but didn't feel like lingering and turning any pages.

As I reached the OXO tower a tug sailed by towing a barge with containers, probably full of household waste, in the direction of the Thames estuary. The sound it made boomed across the river and briefly penetrated the silence. I had to leave the Thames Path at Blackfriars Bridge and shortly afterwards I entered the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

Tacita Dean's installation Film is on show at the far end of the Turbine Hall. This venue used to be a power station and the Turbine Hall is vast. By the time I'd reached the bench provided for viewers to sit on to watch Film I'd become accustomed to the lack of light. I had to walk slowly and tip-toed around other viewers. We sat in a straight line and it reminded me of monks observing a religious service in the middle of the night. The silence was interrupted by clanging coming from somewhere else in the building.

Tacita Dean is an artist who uses film in a similar way a painter uses paint. Film has sprocket holes, there are 24 frames a second and 16 frames in a 35mm foot. Images can become distorted, the emulsion can get scratched and film is expensive. Stocks of it are becoming increasingly hard to find. In fact some companies have stopped making it altogether because digital recording with its special effects have taken the film industry over.

Apparently Tacita has no time for digital recording preferring instead the subtle nuances of physical film. She labouriously filmed and spliced together this film that lasts 11 minutes, but feels in the darkness a lot longer, a combination of moving and still images and it feels like a homage to traditional film making. She combined footage of waves in water with bubbles and fountains, along with escalators and blocks of colour in primary colours. I quote from her: 'Film is a visual poem. I found its rhythm and metre from the material itself... Film is about film, and in the end, I let the material's intrinsic magic be my guide.'

Having watched this film, which is on a continuous loop, spellbound for more than 11 minutes I left Tate Modern as dusk was falling so it was almost as dark outside as it had been inside. As I walked over the Millennium Bridge towards St Paul's the brightly lit windows of the City of London school and adjacent offices echoed the images I had been watching in Film just a few minutes before.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Poster King - Edward McKnight Kauffer

In the summer I joined the Islington Arts Society. This was partly to expand my circle of artistic acquaintances and partly to get the opportunity to exhibit my art.

One of the benefits of membership was an invitation on Wednesday evening to visit the Estorick Collection to see the exhibition The Poster King - Edward McKnight Kauffer and listen to a talk by the curator.

The core of the Estorick Collection is work from the Futurist movement and also includes modern Italian art dating from 1895 to the 1950s. Almost the first thing the curator did was to ask a question of himself: What is an artist born in Montana in the United States and settled in England doing on show in a gallery designed to promote Italian art? The answer, which is a bit tenuous, was that Edward McNight Kauffer drew a lot of his inspiration from Fauvism, Vorticism and Constructivism and this includes the work of Italian artists.

I'm familiar with Kauffer's poster designs for the London Underground encouraging passengers to explore the Surrey Hills in their spare time or rush to the Winter Sales or visit the Natural History Museum. I had no idea though that he had been at the forefront of commercial art when it was in its infancy in the early years of the 20th century.

His talent was spotted when a very young man by Joseph E McKnight, a professor at the University of Utah. This man became a benefactor and paid for Kauffer to continue his education in Paris in 1912. As a mark of gratitude Kauffer eventually incorporated his benefactor's surname into his own. At the outbreak of WWI Kauffer had to leave France and made for England and in 1915 received a commission to design posters for London Underground.

There were examples on display of finished artwork for some of the posters which I found fascinating. Having been a graphic design student in the 1970s I could appreciate the labour involved in creating these works. Whereas I recall struggling and failing to create anything worthwhile Kauffer had set the standards for commercial art for the rest of us to follow 60 years before.

Kauffer's heart appeared to lie in the pictorial side of posters rather than the typography. I know to my cost that doing typography well is very difficult to achieve and there are two examples on display where he had to patch over mistakes (I would love to have seen what was underneath).

The work Kauffer did for London Underground led him to receive commissions from various companies and publishing houses. this included work for Shell and BP - by this time the typography was being done by someone else - so Kauffer could concentrate on developing ways of incorporating new technology like photo-montage into his images. By 1925 Kauffer was so famous there was a retrospective exhibition of his work, and he was only 35. He continued being very productive until the outbreak of WWII when, as a US citizen and with commissions becoming scarce, he and his wife returned to live in the US.

It appears he did this with much regret and, although he continued to work, the last decade of his life didn't live up to the success he had enjoyed while settled in England.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Well rounded cabbages

Saturday saw us at the Tower of London and on Sunday we were swanning around Chichester in West Sussex. What a contrast that was. On Saturday evening my sister-in-law spotted a review in the paper of an exhibition of Edward Burra's paintings at Pallant House and on Sunday morning that is where we headed.

To my shame here is another artist I had never heard of but apparently Edward Burra (1905-1976) was one of the most individual and celebrated artists of the 20th century. Like Tracey Emin's work you find yourself drawn into his paintings even if you find them repellent or menacing.

A lot of his works are very large watercolours using several sheets of paper joined together. I don't think I've seen watercolour paintings this big before with such intensity and depth of colour. According to one of the printed notices on the wall his friends said he would begin painting at the bottom right hand corner and work his way up to the top left hand corner. He had such a fantastic sense of composition and storytelling that you find your eyes going round and round a painting while you explore it to the point of feeling travel sick.

Because of the size of these works I assumed he must have used large brushes. This assumption was crushed when we got a chance to look at some of his brushes and palettes on display in a cabinet. They were tiny! So that made me wonder just how long it took him to complete one piece of work and there was a lot of work on display.

In his youth he was fascinated with the dark side of humanity and it is present in very ordinary looking scenes, for example sailors buying coffee in a café. He uses perspective in an odd way which is disturbing. A lot of the work is sexually ambiguous and he was fascinated with soldiers, sailors and prostitutes and particularly their well rounded behinds. As I moved from one painting to another I got the feeling that these characters were following my every move.

In time Edward Burra turned to still lifes and landscapes. Apparently he had a photographic memory so could recall a view when he was back in his studio. I wish I could do that. One still life depicted well rounded cabbages that recalled the well rounded bottoms of soldiers climbing into a truck in an earlier gallery. He managed to instill menace into these cabbages and I felt they were following me around too! A still life of flowers in a vase appeared to have eyes that followed us around as well.

His depiction of the English landscape was not in the least sentimental and in one showed the pollution being belched out by lorries and motorcycles. Of all his work these were the works I most liked. There was one charming painting he probably made towards the end of his life. It is a collection of portraits of local characters including a self-portrait of him standing away from everyone else eating a Cornish pasty.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Trip to the Tower

Yesterday we had a trip to the Tower of London. This visit had been in the diary for weeks and yesterday finally arrived complete with glorious autumn weather.

In the bad old days prisoners used to arrive at Traitor's Gate by boat so we opted to do the same. We travelled on a Thames Clipper which I always enjoy. This is a fleet of catamarans that plough their way up and down the Thames at regular intervals, usually used by commuters, and they are free of irritating commentary. You simply look out of the window which is what our two young companions were happy to do.

The last time I visited the Tower I was eight years old so really don't remember anything about it. This time I was only too happy to try and take in as much as possible. The Tower is part of the Historic Royal Palaces. These are palaces that the Royal Family don't actually live in any longer.

The Tower is over 1,000 years old. When you enter the site it is like arriving in a small self-contained town. Outside the site modern day London exists with traffic streaming past. Inside the site people clearly live there in apartments with their cars parked outside their front doors. Since it was a nice day someone had their washing out on a washing line. There were signs of pot plants and garden chairs. However on the other side of these apartments is a moat. A moat for heavens sake! (It is drained and grassed over these days.) I found these signs of normal suburban life quite disconcerting.

My limited knowledge of the Tower was all about high status prisoners being tortured before being executed. This did happen but what I didn't know was that the Tower was an important administrative centre where records were kept. It was where coins were minted and weapons were stored. The course of the old Roman wall runs through it.

I could wax lyrical about the crown jewels, the architecture and the grounds. I could laugh about the numbers of historical re-enacters who were milling or marching around wearing authentic costumes but I will desist from all this.

Instead I'll stick to two aspects that I found fascinating. One was the armour that was made to measure for various kings, most notably Henry VIII. By looking at his suits of armour you could get a sense of the man that wore them. You could see just how much weight he put on over the years as his waistline ballooned. There was also a sculpture of his face and he really was an ugly old brute but he was a big and immensely powerful, ugly old brute.

The other thing that surprised me was how many exotic animals used to live in the Tower. They were part of the Royal Menagerie.The only wildlife living there now are ravens. Apparently it was common, centuries ago, for monarchs to compete with each other in the giving of exotic and extravagant gifts. I was astonished that one of our kings had a pet polar bear that was allowed to fish in the Thames. There are beautiful metal statues around the grounds representing the different types of monkeys that were allowed to roam freely. There were lions and a grissly bear called Martin. To my modern-day mind this is quite ridiculous but was quite normal then.

This continued for over 600 years. Eventually the animals were rehoused in the 1820s in the new London Zoo because too many visitors were either being attacked or left for dead by some of these animals. I am very glad on this visit we only gazed at life-size sculptures of exotic animals that included an elephant and maybe a panther or two and not the real thing.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Richard of York gave battle in vain

The title of this post is a mnemonic for the continuous spectrum of colours of red, orange, yellow, green, blue indigo and violet and it is also the title of an exhibition curated by Cornelia Parker which is currently showing at the Whitechapel (I think this becoming my favourite art gallery).

I paid my second visit to this show today and before my first visit I must admit that I had never heard of Richard of York gave battle in vain. I would have expected to have run across it at art school but then again I don't recall lectures on colour so maybe that's why I'm learning about it now.

These works are part of the Government Art Collection which totals, according to the booklet listing the pieces, more than 13,500 works of art.That's quite a collection and they are spread across the known world in government buildings and embassies and so on.

Cornelia Parker, whose own work is concerned with collecting and collections, chose to select around 70 works of art and arrange them by colour around the room and hang them in the style of the old Royal Academy exhibition. This means that some of them are hanging very high up indeed near the ceiling, and there is a general feeling of a lack of space. I quite liked this approach.

My favourite image, this time round, is the same as my favourite image from my last visit. Interestingly enough my companions were different on each occasion and we were all in agreement that Graham Crowley's Blue Lane (2003-4 oil on canvas) was a compelling piece of work and we'd have all like to take it home with us.

I enjoyed seeing some works that are hundreds of years old cheek by jowl with contemporary pieces. The drapery on Lady Anne Rich's portrait (1626) was mind boggling but so too was the complexity of Grayson Perry's enormous etching Print for a Politician (2005). I also enjoyed Darren Almond photograph of Flatford @ Fullmoon (2000) and Hamish Fulton's No talking for seven days (1993).

This exhibition is on until 4 December 2011 so I've got time to go and see it again. The following exhibition begins on 16 December 2011 and it's titled Travelling Light and the works, from the Government Art Collection, have been selected by Simon Schama.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Got my dates wrong

Yesterday I wrote about the first time I saw Pre-Raphaelite paintings in a real gallery. I remember being quite dazzled by them, seeing them in the flesh so-to-speak and it caused my little heart to flutter. This was because I'd been introduced to the movement having watched a tv drama about them on the BBC and wasn't prepared for a real life encounter with them.

I wasn't 17 as I wrote yesterday, I was in fact 18 years old. At this stage in my life I was old enough to get married without permission, vote in an election and serve in the armed forces for my country. Quite the adult you might say except I was so ignorant about art history it took the BBC to teach me about the Pre-Raphaelites. I have discovered on Wikipedia that the series was called The Love School if you want to go and check it out and it was broadcast in 1975.

Just a couple of weekends ago I had the chance to go to the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery for the first time. It was built in 1885 and it has a huge collection of paintings, silver work, cast iron work and it is also home to the world's largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art.

By the time I had navigated my way to the galleries where they were hung I had enjoyed watching some short films about how artists make their art, wandered around the building taking in the architecture and read any number of small notices naming and describing artworks. So I was feeling a bit wan by the time I had stumbled across Burne-Jones.

Now I am no longer 18 years old I can view these paintings a bit more dispassionately than I could more than 30 years ago. My heart doesn't go pitter patter and I find some of the subject matter a bit cloying but I continue to be impressed with the standard of draughtsmanship. It was like a master class in understanding perseverance given the scale and detail of some of the works. It's always tempting to imagine that famous artists had numerous apprentices to help them do the grunt work but that may not be the case at all.

When I left the museum I felt in need of a lie down. Now, with hindsight, it is the quality and quiet presence of the art that remains with me.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Did you go to art galleries when you were a child?

I began thinking about this question today when I was visiting the Whitechapel gallery in Aldgate, east London.

I was there with my husband and a friend and we were in the Rothko in Britain exhibition which is upstairs in the part of the gallery that used to be a public library. It is a small room and there is one of his paintings on display plus quite a lot of his personal correspondence laid out in two cabinets that you can spend time reading. There are also photographs of his exhibition at the Whitechapel from 1961.

These are grainy black and white photos of people looking at the work and it includes a small boy, maybe about five years old, having a good look at a painting from its right hand edge plus another one of a younger child in a pushchair.

I often see small children being taken around galleries now but I don't recall ever being taken to any as a child. I do recall in the mid 60's being taken to Stonehenge by my parents and later on historic houses and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

I did a very small straw poll of my companions and they only began visiting galleries when they were old enough to decide for themselves what they wanted to do. In my case I was about 17 and I believe I saw the Pre-Raphaelites for the first time.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Tracey Emin - 'Love is what you want'

This afternoon Graham and I had a mini holiday swanning around our home town which also doubles as our capital city, London. After we'd had lunch in Islington we abandoned our original plan of joining in the World Literature Weekend because we would have been too late getting there having spent too long in the Compton Arms setting the world to rights with some friends from Union Chapel.

So we jumped on a bus heading towards Waterloo and got off near the South Bank Centre. We decided, since we were there, that we might as well go and see Tracey Emin's exhibition Love is what you want. Neither of us have been what you'd call mad fans of her work but we were prepared to give her a go, so to speak. And the exhibition was amazing.

If the job of an artist is to shed light on some aspect of the human condition that often remains concealed Tracey does that in spades. She mines her personal history and puts it on display for all to see and it's often very confrontational and painful to look at. She is described as a natural storyteller and she says of herself that 'writing is the backbone of everything she does'. She creates blankets with appliquéd words sewn onto them which recount episodes from her family history. She works in neon too so her words are lit up in pinks and blues.

She's made short films which are both funny and poignant and being short deserve watching more than once. Her output is staggering and it includes sculpture and drawings, large and small and collections of memorabilia. I'm often tempted, when visiting an exhibition, to skip over some items and leave with a general view. But in this exhibition I found I was drawn into her work and left feeling emotionally wrung out by the descriptions of sexual abuse, abortions, looking for love, losing love, living alone, the loss of fertility and seeing her beloved Nan's (grandmother) dead body for the last time.

Following this we needed therapeutic coffee and cake and headed to the Members' Bar in the Festival Hall nearby where I made the sketch below. Thanks Tracey, great show!
View over the river Thames from the Festival Hall

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Making art is constantly puzzling

Boats, Lyon April 2011 (detail)
I've just noticed that I haven't posted anything here since last September which is about eight months ago. That's partly because I've been concentrating on my drawing project Drawing my way round London and partly because I haven't had much to say... until now (I take a long time to think).

I would love to be able to make art fast. Just toss off one piece of artwork after another, frame it and sell it. Then get on with the next one. But I've learned over the years that I can't work like that. It's as though I have to work at the pace the artwork wants to proceed at and that can been dead slow.

Impromtu Kafe, Lyon
I do keep on drawing regularly and trying out new ideas and very often these turn out to be interesting studies rather than anything I'd want to hang on a wall but they are valuable none-the-less. I made this image of boats (above) just the other week while on holiday in France. I used oil pastel on acrylic paper and then worked into it with white spirit. I like the result but it is only a study. I made the sketch on the left at a café we stopped at while we were exploring the artisan quarter of Lyon.

Then yesterday evening I made these quick sketches of other customers at the Lauriston bar/restaurant near where we live. These quick portraits are none too flattering but I just wanted to see if I could capture a likeness without trying too hard. Sadly one of these women looks like an old hag which was unintentional since she was probably in her twenties.

Then every so often though something will coalesce and I'll produce something worthwhile that I can be proud of like this view below looking from Corbridge in Northumberland that I was happy to frame and hang on our sitting room wall.