Sunday, 31 July 2011

Geneva & Zürich

MAMCO / Centre d'Art Contemporain, Geneva

So most of this week has been spent between Geneva and Zürich, in my first ever visit to Switzerland.

Geneva itself is a funny place. It's an international city, with more than half of the population being non-Swiss. Around the lake is beautiful, but the city itself is bitty, and seemingly in a state of permanent roadwork-induced chaos at present. The architecture, too, is all over the place, with elegant French style apartment blocks sitting cheek by jowl with mirror glass office towerblocks and East Germany-lite concrete housing estates. For all its international character, it seems like a pretty quiet and sleepy place, too.

However, there are some good art spaces here. The MAMCO centre, four floors of an old industrial building, has a very impressive permanent collection, continually rotated, and generous space for local and international artists to mount serious exhibitions. When I visited on Friday, the top floor was given over to the witty and humorous sculpture and mobiles of Markus Raetz; a real illusionist in three dimensions who delights in fitting two images into one form, through manipulation of the material and judicious use of mirror images and trompe l'oeil. If Raetz's ambitious retrospective was a delight, then Cosima von Bonin's hallucinogenic floor full of sewn bunnies, nod and a wink references to 90s rave culture, toy rockets and nonsense poems was far less so; very much an attempt to combine "witty" popular cultural knowledge, alongside a frenetic chase after the ambulance of controversy, with generally underwhelming results.

More interesting, on the ground floor, was the neon sculptures and installations of the young Swiss artist Mai-Thu Perret, a scattergun showing of lyrical abstractions. There was also a decent broad exhibition of European contemporary artists from the last forty or so years, featuring the likes of Gordon Matta-Clark and Julije Knifer . The second floor also featured a very wide ranging and well sourced show of Europunk, from c. 1976-80, very familiar to the British visitor but interesting in its display of European echos of the punk "revolution". MAMCO also seems to be a community run space with local artists featuring prominently in the development and display of the programmes, overall it;s a very well put together space well worth the visit.

Oscar Gauthier, Hommage a Laprade, 1962
At the Musée Rath, in the city centre, there was an excellent show of European post-war "lyrical abstraction" from c. 1946-62, mainly focusing on Paris' attempts to rebuild its cultural life and re-establish its credentials as the capital of world art in the years following the end of the traumatic Nazi occupation. This is a really solid narrative show, with all the expected names (Jorn, Appel, Soulages, Dubuffet, Hartung) featuring alongside some much less well-known painters. English language art history tends to focus on the COBRA group and Art Brut in this period, so decent painters such as Gérard Schneider, from Switzerland, and the Frenchmen Martin Barré and Oscar Gauthier have tended to slip through the cracks. A constructed Barré landscape dating from 1950 is amongst the best things here in a very strong and compelling show.

Gerard Schneider Opus 24.B
Three hours drive east, Zürich is a really beautiful city, extremely lively at night and stuffed full of art by day. Unfortunately, I've chosen the wrong time to come here for art as a) it's Sunday and b) everywhere seems to be closed for the holidays- from the well known Dada space Cabaret Voltaire to the Centre for Contemporary Art in the old Lowenbrau Brewery, which seems to be in the process of total re-construction. Nonetheless, it's been well worth visiting; sunny, gorgeous architecture, decent beer and very interesting to walk around on a lazy Sunday. Church bells are chiming sonorously next my hotel as I write this. I'll be back, when, er, everything is open, but not on this trip.

Tomorrow's an overnight stop in Salzburg, the prelude to six days in Vienna. The next update will be from the Austrian capital later this week.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Around the London Galleries

Michelangelo Pistoletto, The Mirror of Judgement, (detail), 1968-2011. Serpentine Gallery, London

So, a round up of all the shows I've managed to get through during my week in London. In the usual pointlessly convoluted manner, we start with the last first; Michelangelo Pistoletto's Mirror of Judgement exhibition at the Serpentine. Pistoletto, one of the founding creative personae behind the 1960s Arte Povera movement, has mined over forty years worth of imagery and experimentation to produce a labyrinthine installation.

Using sinuous sculptural arabesques of corrugated cardboard, Pistoletto transforms the space into a form of mini-pilgrimage for the visitor. The familiar spaces of the gallery are transformed into a claustrophobic walk-through, punctuated by the artists Trumpets of Judgement from the late 60s, an acknowledgement of the impace of the bombastic propaganda of Benito Mussolini and Fascism in his childhood. The focus here, however, is on world religions and the implicit inadequacy of each of the traditions of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. Each of the these traditions has a recognisable piece of religious furniture (prayer stool, statue of the Buddha, prayer mat) placed in front of a mirror; the constant process of confronting oneself whilst walking through the labyrinth becomes quite uncomfortable.

Pistoletto suggests that the limitations of organised religion be superseded by a new, idealistic fusion of human intelligence and the intelligence of the natural world - a utopian vision which may appear very much of the moment, but which he has been developing through his experimentation since the sixties. This is a compelling piece whose force is increased by the everyday nature of its materials.
The Contemporary Living Room, as it appeared in 1951. South Bank Centre, London
The re-working of old material of a very different kind is to be found in the Festival of Britain exhibition at the South Bank Centre. It is the sixtieth anniversary of the iconic 1951 Festival of Britain, itself held 100 years after the Great Exhibition of 1851 (coincidentally held on a site just next door to the contemporary Serpentine Gallery). This show, rather tucked away in the basement of the Royal Festival Hall (the only surviving structure from the original festival), is a real treat, not only in effectively re-constructing how the Festival site looked, but also the effect that it had on ordinary people, both at the main site in London and its peripheral satellites around the UK. In a cinema space, re-constructed with period seats, a British-Pathe news reader opines lazily on the habits of "the British" at their leisure and tries his best to conceal dubiety at some of the futuristic architecture, designs and products on display, a comedy highlight. 

Evidence of such "ingenious" design can be found in a display of the contemporary living room, a remarkable, geometric, spare amalgam of pink fabric, Bakelite and new domestic gadgets such as the television. This, of course, was the decade when the TV moved from being a luxury item attainable to only a very few, to being the central object of entertainment and discussion in households, changing our patterns of leisure and interaction for ever.

Due weight is also given to the graphic designer whose work is nothing like as well known as it should be- the Londoner Abram Games. Games provided the official logo and did much of what now would be called the Festival "branding", and his central figure of a modernist Britannia is re-worked. One of the more touching photographs on display is one of two of Games children, now middle aged, laughing in the presence of their father's best known design.

Whatever nostalgia there may be for a fast-disappearing past in the Festival of Britain show isn't to be found, as expected, at the BP Portrait Award 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition was absolutely packed when I visited (at two o'clock on a Monday afternoon) and, as always, was generating lively discussion about the choice of the judges versus each visitors own ideas of what should have won. I'm not going to get drawn into that, but instead focus on a portrait that really stood out for me.
Benjamin Sullivan Study 2010-11; copyright the artist. NPG, London.

The portrait is of Sullivan's girlfriend, and was completed whilst he was spending a good stretch of time away from her. The painting is attractive because of its distorted perspective; we look directly down into a cup of coffee, whilst seeing the seated figure in a more conventional manner; the Grimsby street scene outside again appears to be operating on an unusual plane. The device of the net curtain blurs the smokers conversation on the outside, and implicitly reduces their noise to a minimum. The narrow, wood floored interior throws the figure into sharp relief and invites the viewer to think about the introspection, loneliness and complete self absorption that study can bring- perhaps inviting a wider comment on the act of observing a painting. This is also an idealistic view, with the painter imagining what his partner will be doing in his absence and putting together that vision from a composite of past realities. This is a much more subtly complex piece than it first appears, and as such is emblematic of an ambitious, technically dextrous and wide ranging show- perhaps more so this year, than in recent times.

Thomas Struth, Semi-Submersible Rig, DSMES Shipyard, Geoje Island, South Korea, 2007. Whitechapel Art Gallery/The Artist
For one reason and another, it has been quite some time since I've managed to an exhibition at the Whitechapel- I think the last show I saw there was an Emil Nolde retrospective c. 1995-96. The main galleries are filled by an extremely arresting show by the German photographer Thomas Struth- one of the first truly "global" photographers, in terms of his range of subjects and his constant refining of his photographic methods. Struth is fascinated with man's constant desire to progress and to innovate, despite the mounting historical lessons of the folly of some of those innovations. The study of a new gigantic oil rig taking shape in a South Korean shipyard is perhaps the best example of this, although the ground floor of the show has many examples of humans interacting with gargantuan architectural and engineering spaces. Implicit in this is the emptiness and recurrent failure of utopian political and religious ideologies, and the persistence of the human spirit beyond those failures. 

Thomas Struth, Clinton Road, London, 1977

Struth was a student of Bernd and Hilla Becher in the 1970s, and some of his earlier portrayals of cities reveal their strong influence. A good example is the view of Clinton Road in Stratford, East London; the, seemingly, an empty space bounded by a railway line in the background, with only the parked cars giving any sign of human habitation in the Victorian terraced houses. Back then, East London was unimaginably different; the docks were in terminal decline, and would be cleared to make way for Canary Wharf and the new financial district, with this formerly mercantile hub of the British Empire/Commonwealth re-imagined as the finance and service sector"Docklands" by city planners. In a sense, then, this picture is a memento mori of an old working class community that was about to be swept aside by forces completely beyond its ken. More prosaically, although the photo is less than 35 years old, everything looks terribly shabby, and decayed; as remote as a photograph from the second world war.

Joan Miro, Vegetable Garden with Donkey, 1918. Moderna Museet, Stockholm
The other major retrospective I managed to see was the Joan Miro show at Tate Modern. It's worth the eye-watering £15 entrance fee even for those on a tight budget. The particular highlights for me were the opening room- where a series of pictures of Miro's parent's farm in Mont-roig, Catalonia. Much of the symbolism which underlay his later biomorphic and surrealist work dates from this period; particularly his view of the Cataln peasant as a kind of everyman figure, and his understanding of and sympathy with the natural world, dates from this period- a stage of his career which is crucial but often overlooked in favour of his more resolved style of the late twenties and thirties.
Miro's political radicalism as a driving motor behind his ideas and paintings are explained in compelling detail. The Constellations series, dating from 1940 to c. 1942, provides an anxious visual accompaniment to Miro's feelings of gloom at Franco's triumph in the Spanish civil war, the impending invasion of a defeatist France by Nazi Germany, and Miro's own return from France to Spain and "internal exile" with his wife's family. From then on, Miro maintained a low profile in Francoist times, whilst maintaining an international voice through regular exhibitions in Paris and New York. Throughout his long career, he continued to intervene on behalf of radical political causes, such as the triptych inspired by the imprisonment and ultimate garrotting of the Catalan anarchist, Salvador Puig Antich

This is a rich and provocative retrospective which will certainly alter any preconceptions the visitor has of Miro- it certainly did that for me.

Tomorrow, I set off from London for the Chunnel, and then an overnight stop in Reims, en route to Geneva and then Zurich for the weekend. My next entry will be from Switzerland, then.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Vorticists at Tate Britain

This exhibition of Vorticist work at Tate Britain is the first major survey retrospective of this movement in thirty five years. As a student at St. Andrews, I became somewhat obsessed with them, their brief moment of art-political notoriety, and their subsequent sad dissolution in the trenches of the First World War. Vorticism, a sarcastic English cackle echoing in the uncertain hinterland between Cubism and Futurism, was the one truly radical homegrown contribution to European modernism before the Great War, which makes its subsequent neglect somewhat puzzling.

The first piece encountered by the visitor, in a dazzling opening to the show, is Jacob Epstein's re-constructed Rock Drill from 1913-15. Set against an appropriate backdrop of a livid pink-vermillion wall, this piece encapsulates many of Vorticism's more aggressive and discomfiting attributes; unashamed virility, chauvinism, the head-first enthusiasm for the machine aesthetic and, of course, sex.

Jacob Epstein, The Rock-Drill, 1913-15, reconstructed 1970s. Tate Britain
Epstein however was at one remove from the core of the Vorticist movement, shying away from being a signatory to the manifesto BLAST, although he did contribute a written piece. Having been badly stung by the constant fevered criticism of his work and its sexualised agenda by conservative British art critics, Epstein was developing a robust, independent position in aesthetic debate, one which viewed programmatic declarations of the type favoured by the Vorticists with suspicion.

This exhibition has three real strengths. Firstly, it shies away from focusing on the relationships between the core Vorticists- Percy Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska- relationships which have been the subject of much speculation in art history. Instead, it allows the visitor to re-construct the development of Vorticism for themselves, through re-building the exhibition timeline between 1913-17. For the first time, this allows some familiar works to be seen in their proper context- a strategy probably borrowed from Anna Greutzner Robbins' 1997 Barbican show, Modern Art in Britain 1910-14. The remarkable rare drawings by Lewis associated with Timon of Athens from 1912 (particularly a tiny ink sketch entitled Soldiers, as mesmerising as Gaudier's late Japanese Mask not shown here) are a good example of this, displaying a malevolent control of taut, whiplash line, that was still evident twenty years later in his Thirty Personalities and a Self-Portrait.

Secondly, the exhibition gives due weight to those adherents of Vorticism who have been largely forgotten since the end of the first world war, or who are remembered for work done later in their careers- not only the Edward Wadsworths and William Roberts, but also individuals such as Lawrence Atkinson. Atkinson, alone, persisted in pursuing an abstract style after the end of World War One and, in the changed cultural circumstances following the end of the conflict, it proved to be a lonely road to obscurity. A similar fate befell the women artists who enthusiastically followed the emerging movement- Helen Saunders, Jessica Dismorr, Kate Lechmere. All are sensitively re-incorporated into their proper place in the developing historical narrative.

Thirdly- and perhaps most importantly- the exhibition gives due weight to the written, without which an understanding of the movement would be likely to escape the visitor. For it was in the tumbling-over-itself bombast, penned by Lewis and Pound, in the first issue of BLAST that marks out their hardened, radical-right take on contemporary art. The writings also hold the key to understanding Lewis' challenging The Crowd of 1913, a modernist painting unique in that it does not celebrate the revolutionary potential of the urban crowd, but fears it, and seeks its control in a dense lattice of dun coloured lines and blocks.

Lewis' bizarre jackdaw's nest of phobia of the contemporary, narcissism, and general paranoia had, by the early 1920s, seen a failed attempt to re-start Vorticism (the Tyros and Other Portraits series) and a retreat into a series of satirical slashings of Bloomsbury, the Sitwells and the hegemonic Francophilia which governed the English "avant-garde" of the 1920s. Lewis' call for an unashambedly intellectual, hard edged, mechanised modernism had become a barely noticed casualty of the 1914-18 war.

Edward Wadsworth Mytholmroyd 1914. Private Collection

To be picky, perhaps the exhibition could have said more about the fate of all the Vorticists after the lingering dissolution of the movement during 1915-17. Gauder's death, sombrely announced in the second number of BLAST, and Pound's subsequent disillusioned flit to Paris, and advocacy of a new sculptural totem in Constantin Brancusi, would have been interesting to have seen a little more developed. But that is probably being overly-demanding. In the final room, the bizarre Vortographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Edward Wadsworth's compelling wood and lino cuts of northern, industrial England, provides more than enough for the viewer to contend with.

This is an extremely well curated and thought through take on a complicated and challenging movement. Try and see it before it closes, because there won't be another show like this for at least the next thirty five years. This is so well done, there won't need to be.

The Trip

So, this is going to be my on-line journal for the next five months, as I slowly work my way around Central Europe and the Balkans. I have a research grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh to look into art production and art history in the country that was Yugoslavia, until 1990-91. A publisher is interested in taking the project on in 2012-13, but I have to raise a lot of money towards the book actually happening around then.

I'm not going to be outlining a turgid manifesto of intent, or pious bullet-pointed research agenda, here. This blog is simply going to be about the experience of travelling in and thinking about this part of the world, which has fascinated me for a long time. As I am now a freelancer after ten years of taking the shilling of various academic institutions, I have a bit more time to develop this theme than might otherwise have been the case.

Here's the (intended) route, subject to change as things develop: London-Geneva (stopping off with a friend)-Zurich-Vienna-Brno-Ljubljana-Belgrade-Skopje-Bitola. I hope to be in Southern Macedonia for the end of August, and I will be working from that point on, until the second week in December, when I will re-set the co-ordinates for the UK and an uncertain but exciting 2012.