Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Bank holiday arty-farterie

This was intended as a short Facebook status update...

It's been a busy time at the cultural mill this bank-holiday weekend. Eddie dragged me to no less than 6 exhibitions (and there was ancillary cake, of course). 

First it was was Tate Modern for the Pierre Bonnard exhibition on Saturday. 
I knew OF Bonnard, of course, but very little about him and his work, which doesn't attract me visually, if I'm honest. I can't say I have become a convert after seeing the show but I found his use of framing (for his paintings and the use of frames within the frame) as well as what felt like an attempt to create abstractions from everyday situations interesting (and resonant). 
In the Bathroom (1940)
I had bumped into a matinal friend when arriving at the gallery and he had recommended having a look at the Dorothea Tanning exhibition, so we popped in. While I recognise the quality of the draftsmanship generally shown by surrealists, I can't say that their stuff is my bag. The exhibition was interesting in that it covered all of Tanning's carreer and therefore the evolution of her style. I realised that I knew one of her paintings but nothing else. I enjoyed most her later work. Because they are so referrential (of classical painting and Bacon, particularly), lots of the piece felt already familiar somehow. For an artist interested in dreams that's a satisfactory effect to achieve in her audience. 
Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik
We then whizzed across London to John Keats' house in Hampstead where for the weekend only the manuscript of his Ode to a Nightingale was on display (on loan from the Fitzwilliam). There were three actors there who performed a few rather clumsily expositional scenes, imagined from the life of Keats in the house. 
The first page of the manuscript
Then I discovered chocolate babka cake at a local bakery... 
Chocolate babka (or yeats) cake
... and my life was never the same again!

On Sunday, we went to Tate Britain. Eddie wanted to see the Van Gogh in Britain exhibition and I wanted to see the Don McCullin one, which was closing this weekend. 

There were fewer works by Van Gogh than one might expect to find in a show titled "Van Gogh in Britain". In fact it turns out that Van Gogh only really started painting after he'd left Britain. The exhibition therefore focusses, sometimes rather unconvincingly, on the influence those years spent in the UK had on Van Gogh's work, and then on the influence Van Gogh's work had on British artists. I enjoyed the opportunity to see early works that are not normally shown (most probably because they are not in his later, well-known style). 
Van Gogh was "inspired" by his print collection. Here one of Gustave Doré's views of London.
The Don McCullin exhibition was one of the three big photography exhibition on London right now (the others being Diane Arbus at the Hayward and Martin Parr at the NPG, of which more later). It's difficult not to draw comparisons. Like Arbus's work, the McCullin images on show were all black and white, but here the similarities end. Where Arbus seems to clumsily point a camera she doesn't quite know how to use a rather random things, McCullin knows what he is doing, both technically and compositionally. The results (even when he is not shooting war zones) are incredibly powerful and strong. 

One of the room showed some of the newspaper and magazine spreads which are McCullin's images' natural habitat. One of those spreads matched earlier work with his last visit to conflict area. One set of images in high-contrast black and white and the more recent set in colour. Although the images were deliberately quite similar, I was struck by how much more impactful the B&W images seemed to be. 

A section of the show was dedicated to McCullin's work in 1970's UK: homeless men in derilict Aldgate, and poverty-striken squalor in Bradford and Liverpool. Somewhat puzzlingly, McCullin took up the subject as a way to take his mind off the horror he saw as a war reporter, but he also felt an affinity with the poverty he encountered, having experienced it himself as a child. In any case I could help thinking that those Brexiteers who claim that the UK was doing just fine before it joined the EU should be showed those images for a much-needed reality check. It's not far-fetched to compare those images with those of a war-zone (and the comparison was very easy indeed, a few steps to the next room being all it took).

Near Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin
Sheep Going to the Slaughter House
On Monday, we paid a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, the name "Martin Parr" has been rising up more and more into my awareness but I have to admit that I was a little dismissive of his work, all those colouful seaside images felt superficial and pointless.

So encountering the full breadth of his work in one big exhibition was a useful way to properly assess him. The sense of fluffy froth remains but I understand much better now what he is trying to do: explore Britishness in all its quirkiness. There is sharp observation and often humour in Parr's work.

Because of his subject of choice, Brexit is something that was bound to crop up in the show. There is in fact a whole section supposedly dedicated to the subject. But it seems Brexit is mostly elusive and not camera-friendly. The selection of images feels arbitrary. In fact, apart for a couple of exceptions, Brexit can't really be applied to those photos that do not differ from the main body of Parr's work in any way. You could argue that, because Brexit is ultimately about British (or rather English) identity, the whole of Parr's work is about Brexit.

More interestingly for me, however I discovered that Parr has an open project on people dancing. This leads him to attend all sorts of occasions where people are dancing, which, of course, includes clubs. Something I know well from my own work. It was interesting to compare what was presented of his output on the subject with mine. And I honestly think I can stand my ground there. 

The Perry Family 
Manchester Pride, Manchester
Something I felt was missing from both photographic exhibition (though there were a few nods in that direction in the Parr show), was a description and discussion of the artists' MO. Do they use digital and why not if they don't, how do they approach people, do they shoot first, ask permission after, do they chat or move on straight away, how does Parr choose this hairdressing salon rather than that one, etc...

Most people visiting the show would probably not be interested but I'm sure a fair amount of photographers would also attend and would be interested in that sort of thing.