Post Pop: East Meets West (Saatchi Gallery)

Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism: Benetton (1992) Oil on canvas

Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism: Benetton (1992) Oil on canvas

The (re-) appropriation of Pop Art as an international movement is experiencing a resurgent moment. Until 3rd March, the Saatchi Gallery is presenting a major exhibition: ‘Post Pop: East Meets West’, exploring Pop art since the 1960s. This show gathers artists from around the globe whose artistic vision has been formed partly in response to the Pop aesthetic. The 256 works on display have been arranged thematically rather than by nation or chronologically. The first of these themes, ‘Habitat’, deals with domestic spaces and their associated content: for instance Ai Weiwei’s marble sculpture of an armchair. Notions of comfort are undermined by Ai’s unconventional choice of material, which introduces a sense of grandeur and an edge of humour. This contrasts with one of Rachel Whiteread’s signature negative-space plaster casts: here of a mattress; alluding to traces of human activity and evoking a sense of contemplation and loss.

Alexander Kosolapov - Hero, Leader, God, Painted resin (2007)

Alexander Kosolapov – Hero, Leader, God, Painted resin (2007)

The subsequent theme, ‘Advertising and Consumerism’, focuses on the rise of consumerism witnessed in America and Britain following years of wartime and post-war austerity, as artists readily appropriated identifiable imagery from mass media, commercial advertising and popular culture. For Chinese and Russian artists, the embrace of a market-led economy raises significant tensions between the binary poles of communist idealism and western materialism. In Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism: Benetton (1992), the tension between the potent legacy of socialist propaganda and the powerful allure of advertising is easily felt. He combines the Benetton logo with a group of heroic-looking proletarians, drawing on imagery associated with the Cultural Revolution. Other works include a row of Mao-Zedong themed arcade consoles by Feng Mengbo and a vitrine filled with floating basketballs by Jeff Koons.

Sergey Shutov - Abacus (2001) Installation, plastic, mannequins, motors, textile, video

Sergey Shutov – Abacus (2001) Installation, plastic, mannequins, motors, textile, video

From there, the exhibition progresses through such themes as ‘Celebrity and Mass Media’, ‘Art History’, ‘Religion and Ideology’ and ‘Sex and the Body’. Certain iconic figures recur throughout including Mao, Marilyn, Elvis, Lenin and Stalin. One of the most haunting pieces is an installation by Sergey Shutov of 12 shrouded figures ‘worshipping’ before large slices of bread, created in wood by a fellow Russian artist, Anatoly Osmolovsky. A further room is filled with Gu Wenda’s vast installation, ‘United Nations – Man and Space’, representing national flags made from human hair. Also worth noting is Andres Serrano’s infamous Piss Christ (1987), a photograph of a crucifix in what is purported to be the artist’s own urine.

Often deliberately shocking, ‘kitsch’ and utterly bizarre, ‘Post Pop’ left me wondering what Clement Greenberg would have to say about it all – personally, I’m very glad that I didn’t have to take any of it home with me! Bringing together art from around the world, this exhibition offers viewers a rare chance to make comparisons between the work of artists from fundamentally different cultures and ideological backgrounds. It will be interesting to compare this approach by the Saatchi Gallery to the upcoming take on the movement by the Tate: ‘The World Goes Pop’, coming to Bankside in autumn 2016 .

Clare Lamport is a third-year BA student at the Courtauld.

 Post Pop: East Meets West is at the Saatchi Gallery until 3 March 2015. Entry is free.




Visiting Curator Stephan Kemperdick

20150120_181056_AndroidThe Courtauld’s visiting scholars programme this term brought us the current curator of Early Netherlandish and German paintings at the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Stephan Kemperdick. His three-day takeover of the Research Forum proved immensely popular, especially the opening lecture in the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre: packed-out with people eager to know “What Happened Around 1430?” The answer to this intriguingly question-marked lecture title was quite simple: Jan van Eyck. Stephan showed how van Eyck’s painting of what he saw rather than simply what he knew rippled throughout Europe: albeit less “intellectual” painters who copied his motifs, such as cast shadows, rather than observing Nature for themselves.

Courtauld staff and students between plaster cast replicas of Henry II and Isabella of Angoulême (?)

Courtauld staff and students between plaster cast replicas of Henry II and Isabella of Angoulême (?)

The following day we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum Cast Courts with Stephan for a look at Early Gothic Sculpture. Essentially, we looked at fold style for about two hours: an indulgently obscure way for a group of art historians spend a morning. The stiff, decorative V-folds of the effigies of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart from Fontevraud Abbey we contrasted with a smaller, unknown queen who is often thought to be of the same series. Usually identified as Isabella, consort of King John, who died in 1246, she posed a problem. The much deeper, naturalistic folds that suggest the body underneath clearly separated her from the late-twelfth-century English kings, but also not advanced enough for the more monumental style of the mid-thirteenth-century. A look at Romanesque sculpture, such as the façade of Santiago de Compostella, revealed supposedly ‘Gothic’ ideas of folds in contrast to the alleged firmly “Gothic” Fontevraud monuments. We also had a good long look at the extraordinary Ecclesia and Synagogue from the south transept of Strasbourg Cathedral: both in their technical skill and their surprising sultriness.

Considering casts of Strasbourg Cathedral's Ecclesia and Synagogue, of the 1230s

Considering casts of Strasbourg Cathedral’s Ecclesia and Synagogue, of the 1230s

For his final talk, Stephan filled the Research Forum room to give an afternoon seminar of the history of the reception of the Ghent Altarpiece after its completion. What emerged from his study of the early accounts of the altarpiece – including Albrecht Dürer’s visit in 1521 – is that all of the viewers saw the altarpiece in its open state. Many of them seem to have visited on weekdays (it’s always special to realise an art-historical event happened on a Tuesday), outside of major feasts, when the altarpiece would be firmly shut. This meant that these viewers were considering the altarpiece entirely from an artistic perspective: never including the outsides of the shutters, which were presumably returned to its normal closed state after the tourists’ departures. However, the copy by Michel Coxcie, made for Phillip II of Spain and now split between Brussels and Berlin, Stephan showed was keen to replicate the work as a liturgical object. Not only were the folding wings included, but the original donors were replaced with the Evangelists: showing that function was valued over the precise subjects. After a good question session, Stephan’s visit concluded – as most things do at the Courtauld – with wine, and reflections on what had been a very stimulating few days.

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy (National Portrait Gallery)

William Morris by George Frederic Watts; NPG 1078.

William Morris by George Frederic Watts; NPG 1078.

Exhibitions are vital for any modern gallery’s livelihood, but can be rather tricky to pull off for institutions restricted to artworks of one subject type. The latest effort by the National Portrait Gallery was a show in the name of William Morris: but more specifically the legacy of his socialist ideals in the art-making of the succeeding century. At the centre of the exhibition’s argument was Morris’ News From Nowhere: a crazy Utopian yarn that brought his socialism to a wide audience. Although the first room confronted the visitor with artefacts of the man himself: such as an illustrated copy of News, his satchel and the splendidly visionary portrait by G.F. Watts; the show diffused rapidly from the titular figure. After a look at Morris’ immediate circle: the superstars Rossetti and Burne-Jones; it branched out into his wider influence. This seems perfectly reasonable when one is admiring giant Trade Union banners by Walter Crane, but upon encountering artefacts from the Festival of Britain one feels that they may have washed up on the shores of a very different Utopia.

Architectural Drawings for the Red House (North and South elevations) designed by Philip Speakman Webb for Morris & Co. 1859. Pen, pencil, and Watercolor. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Architectural Drawings for the Red House, Bexley, by Philip Webb for Morris & Co. 1859. Pen, pencil, and Watercolor. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Curated by Morris biographer Fiona McCarthy, this was essentially a didactic exhibition rather than a collection of impressive objects. The Ashmolean’s Burne-Jones cabinet made an appearance after only recently being exhibited at Tate Britain: extraordinary for demonstrating the sheer ambition of a young artist still not well-versed in painterly techniques. As a testament to personal genius, it seemed somewhat inappropriate here: a much more enlightening context of display would be its temporary restitution in the Red House. One of the most delightful surprises was the original plan for Morris’ Bexley pad by Phillip Webb, including the measurements of the roof-timbers and fascinating pencilled-in annotations. Upon close examination one can almost hear Webb explaining where the doors are and how the fireplaces connect to the chimneys to a concerned patron commissioning an ideal abode: a dialogue of creation that was not brought out by its labelling.

Abram Games, Festival of Britain poster, 1951. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Abram Games, Festival of Britain poster, 1951. Victoria and Albert Museum.

It was surprising that Eric Gill was trodden around so carefully. McCarthy, also his biographer and therefore extremely aware of his inordinately controversial nature, seemed to excise mention of the deviant aspects of his artistic commune. Nevertheless, Gill’s lawn-roller, a huge cylinder of stone ending in a curled, naked Adam, was really quite remarkable: a beautiful artefact uniting art and utility. The exhibition somewhat unexpectedly halted at the 1950s, despite all the recent interest in Morris by artists such as Jeremy Deller. The contemporary artists that acknowledge their debt to Morris’ revolutionary art-making were pushed outside the exhibition space itself, which somewhat suggested that they are only playing with Morris’s themes rather than adhering his ideals as true ideological descendants. By the end of the exhibition it was almost a cause for concern that the original fervour and clamour for social justice through art has been diluted to negligible amounts. Morris deserves a status as more than just a homeopathic cure in the visual arts today: but this exhibition does succeed in showing this one man’s enormous effect on his time and the succeeding century, and the fascination he draws today.

James Alexander Cameron is a PhD student at the Courtauld and current editor of Courtauld Critics. Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy was at the National Portrait Gallery from 16 October 2014 to 11 January 2015.