Saturday, 9 September 2017

Giacometti, Tate Modern, London (10 May-10 September 2017)

"Portrait of Peter Watson" (1953)

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was, without doubt, one of the great painter-sculptors of the twentieth century.  Innovator and experimenter, his relentless pursuit of capturing the appearance of a living model has  led to a body of work which demonstrates the breadth and diversity of his talent and innate skill. 
Giacometti’s distinctive elongated figures are some of the most instantly recognisable works of modern art.  This retrospective by Tate Modern, the first of such scale held in the United Kingdom for twenty years, brings together over two-hundred and fifty works by Giacometti and showcases the development of the artist’s career which spanned fifty years.

Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition detail)

I have been a long-term admirer of Giacometti’s work and have been very lucky to see a number of his painting over the years and most recently in “Pure Presence” at the National Gallery in 2015, which was a much smaller exhibition and left me hoping that I would get an opportunity to see a full retrospective.  I had a lot of expectations.
Giacometti’s consistent return to sculpting the human head throughout this oeuvre and in particular people he was the closest to throughout his life  - his mother, father, brother and wife - is the focus of the first room of the exhibition.  From the very early clay and plaster portraits of his teenage years such as “Head of a Child [Simon Bérard]” (1917-1918) through to the later bronzes of his brother Diego, all demonstrated that Giacometti was born to sculpt.  I could have stayed in that room for hours, it really was a feast for my eyes.  German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) once said that if she could live her life again, she would be a sculptor and nothing more.  If I had been born a sculptor, with even a small percentage of the talent of Giacometti (and Kollwitz), I would have been a very happy woman.

Top: "Head of a Child [Simon Berard] (1917-1918)   Bottom: "Bust of Diego" (1953)

Like many artists at the turn of the twentieth century, African and Oceanian sculpture was very influential on Giacometti.  “Spoon Woman” (1927), first exhibited in Paris in the year it was finished illustrates just how easily the artist assimilated the influence into his own modernist vision.  Giacometti joined the Surrealist movement in 1931.  It proved to be an uneasy alliance.  Despite standing out for being one of the movement’s rare sculptors, Giacometti produced some truly disturbing misogynist depictions of women during his association with the movement.  “Woman with her Throat Cut” (1932) is surely one of the darkest works from the corners of a Surrealist spirit and vision of women.  However in that same year, the artist also produced “Walking Woman II”, reflecting his interest with Egyptian art and this piece thankfully shows the beginnings of his journey away from Surrealism (he was actually formally expelled in 1935) and towards his most iconic figurative work.
"Spoon Woman" (1927)

"Woman with her Throat Cut" (1932)

Every room in Tate Modern’s retrospective featured example after example of Giacometti’s genius.  His intimate busts of his brother and wife are completely compelling, as are his numerous painted portraits, which have always held a particular fascination. 

Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition view)

The overall highlight of this retrospective for me, out of all the wonders on display, was the eight restored original plasterworks “Women of Venice” (1956) made for that year’s Venice Biennale. These haunting, elongated nudes with their base-like feet recall Giacometti’s interest in Egyptian statuary and much like his re-interpretation of Oceanian sculpture nearly thirty years earlier, once again demonstrate the artist’s unique and contemporary vision.
"Women of Venice" (1956)

Giacometti is best remembered for his elongated walking figures such as “Man Pointing” (1947) and “Tall Woman” (1958), which he mostly concentrated on from the end of the Second World War until his death in 1966.  His remarkable career traced the shifting influences and experimentation of European art before and after the Second World War.  Although as a member of the Surrealist movement in the 1930s Giacometti devised innovative sculptural forms, it was his work after the war which developed alongside Existentialism and visually reflected the philosophy's interests in perception, alienation and anxiety after the trauma of the conflict, which has ensured Giacometti’s place in the art history canon and quite rightly too. 
Top:  Giacometti, Tate Modern (exhibition view)  Bottom: "Man Pointing" (1947)

With the exception of the monumental figures in the final room at Tate Modern’s retrospective, the vast interior space of the gallery surprisingly overwhelmed the artworks as a collection.  Although unexpected, it did not particularly matter given that the individual pieces deserved equal individual attention and overall the retrospective more than met my expectations.

Giacometti in his studio (c.1963)

Friday, 26 May 2017

Pol Bury: Time In Motion, BOZAR, Brussels (23 February-4 June 2017)

Pol Bury c. 1962

Despite being a lifelong art lover, I never profess to know everything about all artists, whether they are considered ‘major’ or ‘minor’ (according to art-historical narratives).  So it is always a delight to discover a completely new (to me) artist, and be excited by their work.

Such is the case with Belgian artist Pol Bury (1922-2005).  Apparently, I am not alone in being unaware of this fascinating artist.  Primarily known for his monumental mechanical fountains, he is also seen as one of the founders of Kinetic Art and this retrospective at BOZAR is the first held in Belgium in over twenty years.

“Time in Motion” charts the development of Bury’s diverse and vast oeuvre from his beginnings as a painter heavily influenced by fellow Belgian Magritte, the introduction of movement in his work as a result of his fascination Alexander Calder’s mobiles and then how that developed even further after being inspired by Louise Nevelson wood assemblages.

The exhibition brings together Bury’s paintings, small and monumental reliefs and sculptures as well as drawings and engravings, all of which give a fascinating insight into the artist’s creative journey.  Despite his early paintings showing little originality or promise – they are clumsy with clichéd Surrealist motifs – thankfully, he soon abandoned such laboured signifiers of female sexuality and gradually moved into complete abstraction.  These early abstract works already have a look of Alexander Calder about them.  It was a visit to Calder’s exhibition at Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1950, which put the artist on new artistic path.

Composition, 1952

The year 1959 is seen as the true beginning of Bury as a kinetic artist.  It was the year he combined style and technique into a unique working practice.  His ‘punctuations’ – monochrome reliefs punctuated by motorised and illuminated nylon or iron wires – earned him international recognition.  Their slow and unpredictable movement make for an interesting experience walking through the gallery.  Presented with a room full of kinetic work which, depending on the time set on the mechanisation of each piece, visitors can walk through the room without seeing anything move at all!  Thankfully, when a piece does start to come to life, the sound of the old batteries cranking up the power gives enough warning to rush back and see which artwork is stirring and moving.

Exhibition View (Room 2: Calder's Lessons)

Twelve years after being inspired by Calder, the work of Louise Nevelson was to inspire another development in Bury’s work.  From 1962, he started to create much large sculptures made of pieces of recovered wood.  These are very appealing, both visually and orally.  The beautiful crafted wooden shapes are fully complimented by the gentle sound of wood thudding on wood, created by the subtle and continuous automated movement. 

Exhibition View (Room 5: Paris, New York and Back)

Bury’s exquisite craftsmanship continued when he progressed from working with wood to metal, which he was eventually able to do due to his commercial success.  While he explored the formal limits imposed by the material, the use of metal offered the artist new possibilities for generating movement - using magnets introduced an element of randomness, not seen in his earlier wooden sculptures.

Top: Circles on 6 Forms (1977)
Bottom:  Spheres (1969-75)

Bury devoted the last thirty years of his career realising large-scale public sculptures as a result of numerous commissions he received, and it was these public sculptures which cemented the artist’s international reputation.  A true reflection of the artistic spirit of the 1960s, Bury can be seen as the Belgian equivalent of Henry Moore within post-Second World War art history.

Pol Bury: Time In Motion” is a very special exhibition.  It charts the rise and rise of a very talented and truly unique artist.  As a personal fan of sculpture this was a very exciting discovery for me and I cannot recommend the exhibition highly enough.
Exhibition View (Room 9: Ending on a High Note)

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Michelangelo Pistoletto, Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (14 September-31 December 2016)

Times (temples) Change (2009)

I am a huge admirer of installation art.  I am fascinated at how such work not only transforms the perception of a space, but also the passive act of looking into an immersive experience.  For me, the scale and spectacle of the best of such art - the interruption between what is expected and what is experienced – has the unique ability of focusing all my attention on just the work and temporarily shutting out all the white noise that usually reverberates around my head.  I find that interventions of contemporary art in historical architectural settings (for example Kate Mccgwire at Tatton Park and Sarah Lucas at Sir John Soane’s Museum), can offer a similar experience and I always look forward to visiting non-gallery spaces which showcase contemporary art.  I find such juxtapositions fascinating, so the prospect of seeing the master of Italian Arte Povera in the eighteenth century splendour of an English country house, was an appealing one.

The director of Blenheim Art Foundation, Michael Frahm, eloquently set out the reasons for inviting Pistoletto to Blenheim Palace (the artist’s most ambitious exhibition to date in the United Kingdom) and how his work both compliments and disrupts the Palace’s Baroque setting, in a very professionally produced booklet.  The little booklet was a helpful and welcome companion to my visit.  Strategically placed in a number of Blenheim’s ground floor rooms, the impact of Pistoletto’s work within the spaces varied greatly.  The monumental The Third Paradise (2003-16) in The Great Hall could not fail to impress – the artifice referred to in the theory behind the piece along with its materials of foam, rags and aluminium contrasting strikingly against the artifice of the ornate ceiling decoration.  The spectacle of that piece almost eclipsed some of the work around it (particularly Top Down, Bottom Up, Inside Out (1976) tucked into an alcove on the west side of the Great Hall.

The Third Paradise (2003-16)

Unfortunately, Contact (2007) had been removed due to damage which I found out after asking an attendant having tried in vain to find it in the north corridor, as indicated the gallery guide.

Beautiful pieces like Dog in the Mirror (1971), Mica Paintings (1976) and Painting of Electric Wires (1967) resonated quietly, while work such as Untitled (1976-2016) and Does God Exist, Yes I Do! (1978-2016) disrupted the rooms with more confrontational intent.  When Pistoletto’s trademark rags were featured these could not fail to offer the greatest opportunities for aesthetic disruption – his iconic Venus of the Rags (1967-2013) placed in the Chapel, being the most deliberate curatorial transgression and one which must have been too tempting to resist.

Dog in the Mirror (1971)

Does God Exist, Yes I Do! (1978-2016)

About a quarter into my visit, I got caught behind a regular guided tour of the Blenheim rooms and found it fascinating (and slightly amusing) that not once did the guide, or any members of the public on the tour, make any comment or reference to any of the artwork in the rooms.

The ‘best’ example of this was in the final room of the general tour, the Long Library.  After the guide had made his closing remarks and bade his audience a fond farewell, I watched every single person make a very speedy exit out of that room, not once looking at any of the wonderful pieces which made up the installation From Self-Portraits to Mirror Paintings (1961-2016), let alone interact with them in any way.  I spent so much time in that wonderful room with that wonderful work, it did make me chuckle and it was this piece, along with The Third Paradise, that successfully shut out my white noise.

The Trumpets of Judgment (1968)

Untitled (1976-2016)

Michelangelo Pistoletto is a key figure of post-second world war European art.  This exhibition offers an exciting glimpse into his remarkable fifty year and also demonstrates with more recent work, that the eighty-three year old artist seems as strident and confident as ever.

It is also only the third exhibition to be held at Blenheim Palace and given that art luminaries Lawrence Weiner and Ai Weiwei were the previous ones, I am sure that future solo exhibitions will be just as high-level.  I would love to see an explosion of Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots and pumpkins throughout the palatial rooms or Kate Mccqwire’s feathers cascading in the corridors.  Above both of those wonderful artists though, how incredible would it be to see Sarah Lucas’s bunnies, fags, nuds and muses invading the Spencer-Churchill interiors, squatting on their furniture and generally causing chaos.  I am not sure how the usual Blenheim Palace visitors would react through, but would love to see those two worlds collide.

Top and Bottom: From Self-Portraits to Mirror Paintings (1961-2016)

Venus of the Rags (1967-2013)

Friday, 7 October 2016

Lluïsa Vidal: Painter of Modernism. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (23 September 2016-15 January 2017)

Self Portrait (1899)
Deep in the basement of the behemoth that is the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya ("MNAC"), I discovered a female Modernist painter previously unknown to me, Lluïsa Vidal (1876-1918).  In all my reading around late nineteenth and early twentieth century painting by female artists, not once have I come across her name.  I do not think I am alone in not being aware of this artist though and she is one (of only two) female artists represented in THIRTY galleries devoted to Modernism at MNAC.  In fact, this is the first retrospective devoted to the artist by this (and possibly any) institution!

Vidal was the only professional female artist of Catalan Modernism and one of the very few Spanish women of that period who went abroad to receive art lessons.  Born into an art-loving upper middle-class family, her professional career started in 1898, when she was twenty-two and held her first exhibition at Els Quatre Gats Café in Barcelona, which was a popular meeting place for artists in Catalonia.  She was the first and only woman to hold an exhibition there.

Class at Academie Humbert (1901)

In 1901, she moved to live and study in Paris for a year.  While in Paris she learned about and become a supporter of, the European Feminist movement.  When she returned to Barcelona, Vidal became a member of a feminist group there and collaborated on the magazine Feminal for the next eight years.  In 1911, Vidal also started her own teaching academy as well as undertaking numerous commissions and exhibiting extensively.
This exhibition brings together more than 70 works and reviews all aspects of her work as a painter, cartoonist and illustrator.  Like many female artists of that time, the main content of her oeuvre reflect the subjects that were readily available to her – female portraits, domestic scenes, self-portraiture.  Early in her career though, she did paint en plein air, but her focus was still aimed firmly at figuration.

Girl with a Black Cat (1903)

Vidal was an exquisite draughtsperson, so I was initially surprised to read that some critics of the time judged her painting as being “too manly”.  But looking closely at a huge painting like The Cellist Resting (1909) I noticed on the rendering of the sleeves and bodice impasto daubs of paint left on the canvas.  This was obviously a conscious decision and demonstrates a bravado, rarely seen from a female painter around that time.  In her most considered paintings, Vidal's brushwork is evocative and expressive, sober and compelling.

The Cellist Resting (1909)

Only five years older than another Catalan artist whose life and art are enshrined in both art history narratives and popular culture, Vidal and Pablo Picasso never met and yet their initial life paths took a very similar direction.  Both showed very early prodigious artistic talent, both exhibited at Els Quatre Gats Café and most importantly, both lived and studied in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century.  I wonder what would have become of Vidal (and her painting) had she, instead of Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) met Picasso while in Paris and became the only female member of his avant-garde tertulia.  Alas, it was never to be and Vidal died prematurely at the age of forty-two of Spanish Flu in 1918.  After her death, her name and work fell into total obscurity and despite MNAC owning a number of her paintings, it is only this year that an exhibition has been held to recognise her achievements in her own country.  Hopefully now this will increase awareness about Vidal and that she will also start to be included in updates of surveys on the rise of female artists at turn of the twentieth century - a place where this Catalan New Woman and Modernist painter deservedly belongs.

Self Portrait ( c. 1900)

Illustration for Artistica Magazine (1910)

Illustration for Feminal Magazine (c.1907)

Photograph of Lluisa Vidal (far right) teaching in her academy (c. 1912)

Friday, 26 August 2016

Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate Modern, London (6 July-30 October 2016)

From the Faraway Nearby (1937)

If, like me, you thought you knew what to expect from an exhibition of work by Georgia O’Keeffe (flowers shaped liked vaginas, animal bones and deserts), the first two of the thirteen rooms in Tate Modern’s retrospective of the artist will come as an unexpected surprise and are alone worth the price of the admission.  They concentrate on O’Keeffe’s early mature works, beautiful minimal abstract works which demonstrate how skilful the artist was with handling colour even at the beginning of her career.  The perception of heat emitting from Red and Orange Streak (1919) is simple, yet stunning and contrasted effortlessly against the cool white tones of Abstraction (1921), which is equally sublime. 

Red and Orange Streak (1919)

Abstraction (1921)

Featuring more than 100 works, this is the largest ever exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe  (1887-1986) held in the United Kingdom.  Regarded as a giant of American 20th-century modernism, with the inclusion of more of her early (and later) work than those “iconic” flower paintings, this show seeks to redress widely held interpretations (from male art critics of the time and then later re-appropriated and celebrated by some feminist artists) that such paintings were depictions of female genitalia, interpretations which the artist always refuted.  The curatorial decision to show more works from the rest of her oeuvre in order to demonstrate that O’Keefe had far more to offer as an artist than this one interpretation, is a clever one and makes this exhibition far more interesting and engaging than I was expecting it to be.  The Cubist-inspired abstract paintings such as Line and Curve (1927) displayed in Room 2 is one of many examples of how O’Keeffe tried to shake of such essentialist views about her work, from the outset of her career. 


Top: Line and Curve (1927)  Bottom: Radiator Building Night New York (1927)

Between 1924-1929 O’Keeffe painted quintessential Art Deco views of New York, but for me these appear too stylised and stilted compared to the more organic and free-flowing abstractions of the paintings she made during the same period when she holidayed at Lake George in upstate New York.  With works such as From the Lake No 3 and From the Lake No 1 (both 1924), both O’Keeffe’s brushwork and colour palette are emancipated.

Left: From the Lake No 3 (1924)  Right: From the Lake No 1 (1924)

The artist’s colour palette changed once more, back from warm to cool, when she made her fist extended visit to New Mexico in 1929.  For O’Keeffe the desert landscapes, discarded animal bones and skulls she discovered became her true iconography, and it this body of work which positions her as a foundational figure in the history of American modernism.
What struck me most about this exhibition was not only how strong and capable O’Keeffe’s late work was (something which in my opinion rarely occurs as an artist ages), but also how contemporary these later canvases appear.  Work such as Front of the River – Pale (1959) and It was Blue and Green (1960), painted when the artist was in her seventies, could easily hang among landscapes by emerging artists today and not look remotely out of place.

Left:  Front of the River - Pale (1959)  Right:  Blue and Green (1960)

Georgia O’Keeffe’s career spanned more than seven decades.  The work included in Tate Modern’s exhibition aims to present a view which emphasises the pioneering nature of her career rather than the clichés it has previously attracted.  I think such clichés will always remain, but this exhibition has definitely provided a platform from which to appreciate O’Keeffe with fresh eyes and wider expectations.

Sky Above the Clouds III / Above the Clouds III (1963)

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Making & Unmaking, Camden Arts Centre, London (19 June-18 September 2016)

 Making & Unmaking (installation view)

I am a huge fan of textile art, from Ghada Amer’s sexually explicit needlework canvases, Louise Bourgeois’s fabric works and soft sculptures, through to Sarah Lucas’s Bunny and Nuds series.  On reading that Camden Art Centre’s summer exhibition “Making & Unmaking” was to feature a collection of work including painting, tapestries, traditional fabrics and ceramics and with Dorothea Tanning, Wangechi Muti and Sheila Hicks among the sixty artists featured, this was an exhibition which I was determined not to miss.
 Saint Louis (2015), Luis Monteiro

Taking up all three galleries as well as pieces in the central space and garden, “Making & Unmaking” was huge.  From West African textiles, Bauhaus jewellery to contemporary portraiture and sculpture and addressing themes that included portraiture, gender, sexuality, overall the exhibition explored the rituals of making that underpin an artist’s work, rather than being about textile art as a genre.  Curator and fashion designer, Duro Olowu brought his skills from both disciplines and brings together seemingly disparate artists into his eclectic vignettes, with sophisticated aplomb.  This interlacing of ideas, eras and influences (and materials) created a visually rich and stimulating mix.
Personal favourites included Étreinte (1969) by Dorothea Tanning (no surprise there) and Yinka Shonibare’s Butterfly Kid (Boy) II (2015).  I also really enjoyed Luis Monteiro Saint Louis (2015) video.

Top: Étreinte (1969), Dorothea Tanning    Bottom:  Butterfly Kid (Boy) II (2015), Yinka Shonibare 

However, as I walked through the galleries I started to wonder if there was too much on display and perhaps, just perhaps, the multitude of materials and textures was a little suffocating.  I found the decision to keep information on each wall of artists/works to one grouping at the end of each, rather than providing a sheet you could walk around with, very frustrating.  I think having to constantly return to one source of information while viewing definitely contributed to the premature arrival of gallery fatigue (along with the intense heat in the galleries themselves), which I haven’t felt for a long time at an exhibition.
Despite this, I would still recommend this exhibition.  Oluwo’s vision and passion have brought together rarely seen work in an ambitious format with surprising juxtapositions, which (labelling and temperature issues aside), Camden Art Centre excels at giving a platform to.

Making & Unmaking (installation view)

Friday, 19 August 2016

Mona Hatoum, Tate Modern, London (4 May-21 August 2016)

Over My Dead Body, 1988

Mona Hatoum was born in 1952 in Beirut.  During a visit to London in 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon and Hatoum was forced into exile in the UK.  She stayed in London, training at the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art between 1975 and 1981.  Themes of confinement, constriction and surveillance re-occur in her work, from early performances to sculpture and large scale installations.  Grids, boxes and crates become cages and cells.  This major retrospective at Tate Modern features examples of all these mediums from her thirty five years of artistic engagement while she has lived and worked in London.

I had very high expectations of this exhibition, having frequently referenced Hatoum’s work when I was studying and then being mesmerised by her mini-retrospective at Parasol Unit in 2008.

Homebound (2000) is a standout piece here.  In fact, it has an  omnipresence throughout the entire exhibition.  The installation consists of a variety of furniture and objects (tables, chairs, cots, toys, kitchen utensils, lights, birdcage) connected to each other with electric wire through which a live current runs.  A barrier of steel wires separates the viewer, but as the objects light up in turn the sound of the whining current surges round the room.  The amplified sound of the electrical current can be heard throughout the exhibition instilling a sense of general foreboding as you walk through the galleries and into room Homebound is installed. 

Homebound, 2000

This sense of foreboding is part of the overall experience of visiting this exhibition.  Light Sentence (1992) is equally disconcerting.  The title is a play on the idea of a lenient prison sentence.  A single light bulb hangs in the middle of a structure made of square wire mesh lockers, stacked to create a three-sided enclosure.  The light bulb moves slowly up and down casting constantly moving shadows in the room, which creates a sense that the room itself is moving.  It is very unnerving (I actually started to feel a little motion sick), but it is also very striking.

Light Sentence, 1992

Hot Spot (2013), is another striking sculpture with an equally menacing message.  Here, the play on words in the title refers to a place of military or civil unrest.  By lighting the whole planet in red neon, Hatoum reflects wide and very contemporary fears.  For me, what makes Mona Hatoum a "must see" contemporary artist whenever she exhibits, is that she has the rare ability to present strong ideas in a sensuous fashion.  Her understanding of how different materials can affect people makes the conceptual side to her work very strong.  

Hot Spot, 2013

This can even be seen in the collection of smaller sculptures, models, samples and source materials contained in the exhibition.  A small selection of brightly coloured hand grenades from Nature Morte aux Grenades (2006-2007) made from Venetian glass and arranged like sweets, both appeal and repel.

Nature Morte aux Grenades, 2006-2007
Detail from Interior/Exterior Landscape, 2010

Hatoum's menancing sculptures and installations are driven by political concerns but never shout too loudly to diffuse them of their power.  This combination of her ability to juxtapose materials to their greatest visual impact with dark and unsettling narratives, are still as mesmerising for me as when I first encountered her work.  This exhibition is disturbing, but most definitely not disappointing.

Undercurrent (red), 2008

Cellules, 2012-2013