Thursday, 25 February 2010

Paula Rego, Mat Collishaw and Tracey Emin at the Foundling Museum London - The Independent

The Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury was created in the 18th Century by a venturesome sea captain and shipwright called Captain Thomas Coram. It existed to alleviate the appalling suffering of the many wretched foundlings who were abandoned on the streets of London. Captain Coram’s hospital took some of them in – alas, not all of them by any means. The great hospital itself was swept away in the 1930s, but there is still a Coram Foundation devoted to the needs of deprived children, and a glorious open space where the hospital once stood called Coram’s Fields. One of the most entertaining public notices to be read in the whole of London is displayed at its entrance. This is not a public park, it reads. No adult is to enter unless accompanied by a child. We critics sometimes feel that way about exhibitions of contemporary art, that the sanity of a small child might help to refresh our eye.

And then, right at the back of Coram’s Fields and the little public park which abuts it, there is the Foundling Museum, first created in the 1930s – as a penance perhaps for having wantonly destroyed that finer hospital. It is in this building that Coram and his achievements as an exemplary philanthropist are memorialized. Here is panelling from one of the great hospital’s rooms, a replica of its picture gallery (complete with pictures), and many of the fine paintings and objects that were donated by teems of benefactors, which included Handel, Hogarth and many others. There is even a Handel Room on the top floor, which contains manuscripts, his books, and other fascinating memorabilia.

For the next couple of months three contemporary artists have joined the ongoing conversation here about the plight of children by displaying sympathetic works in various parts of the building. And even outside the building. It is often quite difficult to find their contributions. In fact, it proves to be a game of hide and seek, which is sometimes interesting and at other times exasperating. As you walk up the steps of the building, you spot the first artwork – Tracey Emin’s tiny bronze cast of a baby’s sock, painted a suitably grubby pink, and folded back as if about to be slipped onto a tender foot. The morning I visited, the sock itself was partially overshadowed by a bullying leaf.

The single most arresting intervention is Paula Rego’s huge ‘Oratoria’, which sits on the first landing, opposite a bench from which you can sit and contemplate its shockingly arresting display of miseries and horrors. ‘Ugh, scary!’ says a teacher as she hurriedly pushes past me, pulling at the arm of a small child. I couldn’t agree more. This is a huge tableau, with opening wings. Painted, papier-mache figures, life-size and tricked out in 18th Century Foundling Hospital costumes, sit and loll around at its centre; paintings rise up at their back, and on its opening wings. It is just like something tiny grown nightmarishly large. An emaciated, puppet-like child hangs over the knees of a black nurse like some grotesque pieta. The figures have over-large heads; they have a demonic fairy-tale quality about them in common with so much of the work of Paula Rego.

In another room, amidst venerable portraits of beaming male benefactors, a rack of baby clothes, courtesy of Tracey Emin, waits patiently for a baby. Mat Collishaw’s ‘Children of a Lesser God,’ a giant, wall-mounted transparency blown up to the size of a portrait of an eminent benefactor, makes the flesh creep. Two ferocious looking wolfish dogs, surrounded by scraps of torn animal skin and animal offal, seem to be protecting two naked young babes inside a wire compound. ‘An image of paternal strength and pride,’ reads the exhibition guide. Hmm.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Irving Penn at the National Portrait Gallery - The Independent, London

He is the only man here without a face. That is the first thought that strikes you as you are about to leave this extensive, 70-year-spanning retrospective of photographic portraiture by the late Irving Penn, one of the great American innovators of our time, at the National Portrait Gallery. We’ve seen Dietrich, Duke Ellington, Giacometti, Stravinsky, Nureyev, Nicole Kidman, Woody Allen tricked out to look like Charlie Chaplin and, last but not least, the swashbuckling portrait of Julian Schnabel which Penn took in 2007, not long before his death. But where, amidst all these artists, movie stars, painters, writers, musicians and ballerinas, is Penn himself? There is not a single image of him in this show. The photographer whose image – by Penn - we do see and remember here is that of his contemporary Cecil Beaton, the flamboyant society photographer, looking as loud, elegant, and wispily charmlessly charming as ever.

Penn’s tactics as a photographer could scarcely have been more different from Beaton’s. In the world of Beaton, Beaton himself was a large and raucous part of the glamorous society story he was telling. He was amongst the glamorous beauties he was offering up to the world on a sugary platter. Penn was never that sort of a man. He was gentle by nature, as self-effacing as his Rolleiflex, someone who preferred to notice rather than be part of what was noticed. And that is the reason for his greatness as a photographer.

Penn’s story begins in the 1930s, and it opens in spareness, austerity, a skilful use of economy of means, traits that would be forever associated with the Penn portrait. Pared back to their essentials, that is how Penn’s subjects always look when they are photographed in his studio. The studio setting itself is usually pared back too. There’s almost a sense of visual drought. Everything is in monochrome, from first to last. The walls look a drab, hazy, pocky grey; the floors have bits of threads adhering to them. You can occasionally glimpse a strew of cigarette butts or some rubble. The lighting is never fussy or stagey or glarey. It is either daylight or simulated daylight. There are scarcely any props. Rather than using a table for his sitters to sit at – tables of a certain kind do incline towards the distinctive, especially tables with fussy detailing – he would throw a length of carpet over a plinth, and let his subjects lean or lounge against it, or settle into it like swimmers beached amongst the waves. Or he would take a couple of theatre flats and enclose his sitters within them, as if they are being squeezed by two enclosing walls. So there is no glamour about the context, no baroque extravagance, nothing to distract from the matter in hand, which is, from beginning to end: dissection of character.

This intense focus upon the subject includes a minute degree of attention to the least little gesture – a movement of the hand, an inclination of the head. How hands work with faces is an enduring interest from first to last, how the hand is used to conceal or to lend gravity to a face. It is these things that we tend to remember about a Penn portrait; it is these tiny details which make them especially memorable, the way in which Peter Ustinov clutches his chin, or Le Corbusier his temple. And these small things seem to yield up a great deal. An entire characterization is gifted to us by the way in which Truman Capote is oddly hunched inside these two flats. Time and again, Penn seems to have captured character on the wing, unstudiedly, unlabouredly, as if the hidden inside of the human has, all of a sudden, become visible to the naked eye. Some of his subjects even look like more exaggerated and over-emphatic versions of themselves – see a portrait here of Duke Ellington for example, taken in 1971. If it were not a photographic image, you might be inclined to accuse it of being a bit of mischievous caricature.

The very first portrait in the show is an image of the painter Giorgio de Chirico, taken at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1936. The young Penn had never met the man, but he knew what he looked like. And de Chirico allowed himself to be photographed by this eager, near-idolatrous stranger. The portrait is a marvel because of its humour – although Penn had a great capacity for humour, it was a weapon he used sparingly. De Chirico’s head seems to be enveloped in a wreath of leaves, as if he is a force of nature. Or perhaps he is wearing the laurel crown. Or he may be in the throes of being metamorphosed into a tree – as Daphne once was by Ovid – but this time by the magic of the photographer himself…All these possibilities are held in delightful and affectionate balance. As Penn once said: ‘We don’t shoot people…It’s really a love affair.’

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Gillian Ayres at 80 Alan Cristea Gallery - The Independent, London 9 February 2010

Late flowerings – that rage against the imminent dying of the light – are not especially unusual. Titian painted into his 80s; W.B. Yeats, late in his 70s, wrote, in the final stanza of a late great poem, of nymphs and satyrs copulating in the foam. John Cowper Powys wrote the finest of his huge novels during his 70s. Call it, if you like, a kind of manic exuberance before the shutters come down.

And so it is with Gillian Ayres, who suffered a terrible loss when many of her paintings of the 1980s were consumed in the MoMart warehouse fire in east London five years ago. It took her a long time to recover from what must have felt like a species of bereavement. Paintings, unlike poems, cannot be replicated. But now she is back, with a show which fills two large gallery spaces on Cork Street, and leaves you feeling almost giddy with pleasure.

Abstract painting is not much of a muchness, though many who are not especially over-fond of it are inclined to think so. It comes in many varieties, though, in essence, the kinds boil down to two: the austere and the not so austere. There is the abstraction which looks to geometry as the ground of its being. It feels austere, severe, as if, finally, it is the distillation of something neatly cerebral. It barely notices that it has been born out in a world of sweat and tears and fleshiness. The Constructivists were such artists. We don’t cry for joy when we see their work. We don’t readily embrace it as if we had reached harvest home. We stand back, rub our chins, and immensely admire it.

And then there are the abstract painters who are most of all in love with the tangibility of the world they observe and encounter every day of their lives. Their paintings are about a sudden, almost brutish coming-up-against the world, day after day. They make a kind of rich brew of all the world’s manifold ingredients - its sights, its sounds, its colours – and then they serve it up for our delectation. Gillian Ayres is this kind of an abstract painter.

Gillian Ayres doesn’t give titles to her paintings. She leaves that to her friends. Extract a few words, almost at random from these titles, and you have captured the mood of the work: flight, sparks, song, jumping, flying, shouts. The paintings are full of gorgeous colour and movement, swoopings, turnings, gliding, pirouettings. There are flame-like torsions. Movements feel arrested in full flight. They remind us in their crisply edged forms of the natural world - glancingly, you might say. A hint of a moon or a fan or a starfish or a jellyfish. For the most part, colours tend not to overlap or to merge. Patches of colour are discretely defined. Each colour feels like a strident statement of intent. Many of the paintings are grounded in a nocturnal blue, but it is a blue of cheerful, questing reverie, not a Munch-like blue of gloom and anxiety. Two forms are often set in juxtaposition – the upright, flower-like chalice on a stem, and a more yielding, limp-leaf-like presence beside it.

The title of one painting in particular, ‘The Seeds that Woke the Clay’, seems to best sum things up. That title has an almost biblical resonance, and the work too feels biblical in its distant roots. The forms seem to be erupting into a new kind of life, the kind of life which only this painting, this moment of worming, squirming witness, has managed to define. And here you have it again, in the shapes, a thrusting up into life, and a wilting, a dying, away, the two side by side, as if the artist is saying: this is the whole human gamut, like it or not. This is all there is. And, my good, it’s more than enough.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Giacometti's Walking Man hits £65 million at Sotheby's - The Independent, London

It is not in the least surprising that a figure of a walking man by Alberto Giacometti should have broken all auction records for a work of 20th century art at Sotheby’s. Giacometti, though diminutive in scale himself, was one of the giants of 20th-century art. It was just a matter of time before the collectors noticed.

Giacometti worked in a variety of mediums - he painted, he sculpted, he drew, he wrote texts - at the tiny, austere studio in Montparnasse which he occupied for almost forty years, from 1926 onwards. But it was for sculptures such as this one that he will be most deservedly remembered. The fact is that these ghostly, over-stretched, attenuated figures, which seem like spectral essences of themselves, haunt the mind and the memory. The sculptures look fragile and lonely, as if they are operating on the extreme outer edge of themselves where only the coldest of cold winds blow. They lack the fuss and the essential sociability of detail. They look stony and bleak in their pared-backness. It is as if Giacometti has boiled man down to his godless essence – yes, don’t forget that he was at his most productive when Existentialism was at its most fashionable in the French capital, that lonely, bleak philosophy which tells us that there is nothing beyond the self which we choose to invent, day in, day out. There is no essence, and no spiritual being to rescue us, this walking man seems to be muttering. This kind of bleakness imbues Giacometti’s work from first to last. It represents a long, hard pitiless stare into the emptiness of all human life, a distillation of what it is to be a human being, now or then. All we can do is to walk and to keep on walking, ever restless, ever unsatisfied, hand in hand with Samuel Beckett.

And yet there is also an amusing paradox at the heart of all this. Giacometti was also gifted with a touch of worldly calculation. He would not have been entirely displeased, we feel, by what has just happened at Sotheby’s. He carefully cultivated the legend of his ruthlessly focused, monastic life from first to last. That hirsute appearance, that leaden, repitilian eye, were photographed by some of the world’s greatest photographers – Irving Penn, Robert Doisneau, Karsh. Were he being photographed today, he might even hazard a small smile of satisfaction.