I need to begin with a declaration of interest. First, I am German. Second, I am currently writing a dissertation on another post-war artist. This could explain why I might be a bit more sensitive towards these topics than the average visitor of Anselm Kiefer’s large-scale retrospective at the Royal Academy. Nevertheless, I think that I have reasons to my claim that this show is extremely problematic. Good things first: It comprises an enormous amount of work, provides a good insight into the development of Anselm Kiefer’s works from his early beginnings in the 1970s to his most recent works from 2014, and it makes perfect use of the difficult architectural gallery space. Despite all achievements, the exhibition dramatically fails in approaching Kiefer’s oeuvre from a critical distance.
Some obvious facts first: The earthen colours Kiefer favours, the monumentality of his works, the way in which they overwhelm the viewer, mythological references, the legitimation through German culture and a somehow distorted view on German Romanticism. All of these characteristics are features his works shares with Nazi aesthetics. Kiefer, of course, explains his aesthetic language with the attempt to work through his country’s history to understand the horrors of the Second World War into which he was born in 1945. But his visual language expresses a secret fascination for Germany, which strongly contradicts his verbal assurances. His Deutschtümelei – about which I can find no warning anywhere in the exhibition – is what makes me very suspicious.
For example: Plenty of heroic symbols, mentioning of German philosophers and poets, the Nibelungen, Wagner, of course, Parsifal and overall the Rhine, the Rhine, the Rhine. But what is critical engagement, what blind fascination for a fascinating culture? It is exactly this blindness towards the agency of his imagery, which disturbs me.
I could have forgiven Kiefer a lot, but not that his imagery follows his ‘cosmology’ which is described in the wall text as ‘an immense alchemical oven in which spirit and matter find themselves in a continuous process of creation and destruction’. This is simply unbearable. It sounds as if the holocaust is nothing more than a tiny aspect within the big universe – a normal process within the continuous re-negotiation between the metaphysical and the physical. The uncritical reading of Kiefer’s understanding of ‘oven’ makes me want to take a pen and annotate this wall text with footnotes.
In his seminal lecture in 1959, Theodor Adorno emphasised the meaning of working through history. He points out that fascism in Germany is still alive if the idea of a ‘nation’ matters within a context that has lacked the critical distance of working through the past. My worry is that Kiefer’s aesthetics underlines the fascination for a German-ness rather than providing the environment being required for a critical engagement with the fact that this same fascination once contributed to the incomprehensible murder of more than eleven million people – an event so shockingly unique that it cannot be legitimised as a mere incident within Kiefer’s cosmology.
Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld, working towards the first English-language monograph on the German artist Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010). She explores Schlingensief’s late project of an Opera Village Africa as a participatory experiment, which manifests a diversity of themes resulting from Germany’s post-war struggles to come to terms with its highly problematic past.
Anselm Kiefer is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House from 27 September — 14 December 2014.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Anselm Kiefer, contemporary, Germany, National style, painting | Comments Off
Listening to the sounds of a classical string quartet on the terrace of a beautiful lake-side villa in Berlin’s affluent Zehlendorf neighbourhood evokes an image of the past; somehow reminiscent of Berlin’s Golden Twenties. This grand venue is however, not the setting for a glamorous garden party, but part of this year’s Berlin Biennale. The sound is part of Carla Zaccagnini’s installation Le Quintuor des Negres (2014), inspired by an interest in the reconstruction of history, in particular the idea of the noble savage as featured in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Zaccagnini’s work pursues the question of how idealisations of the primitive featured in the music of German Romanticism, and the piece is based on a fragment by Nepomuk Hummel she discovered during her research, transcribed for string quartet by Frankfurt-based composer Theodor Köhler.
This sort of scholarly investigation provides a good example of the manner of conception behind the majority of the works at this well thought-out Biennial curated by Juan Gaitán. The research process is the starting point in the creative process, which is then condensed into an aesthetic form.
The traditional centre of the Berlin Biennial – the grand hall in the KW Institute of Contemporary Art – sums up the principle of this biennial exhibition. It resembles an artistic research centre, in which Tonel (like Zaccagnini, an art historian turned artist) engages with commerce from a Cuban perspective. But the emphasis on research does not prevent visitors from aesthetic encounters. In fact, one can discover a lot if one looks closely. For example, the installation Weltall by the artist group Kartenrecht. Do these broken wooden balks comment on the fragility of borders, or do they allude to the garbage flying around in the Weltall? There is definitely space for imagination…
Judy Radul’s Look. Look Away. Look Back (2014) provides an interesting cross-reference from the top floor of the KW to a further venue of this year’s biennial: the Museen Dahlem. Radul’s vitrines touch the controversy of the relocation of the ethnographic collection from Dahlem to Berlin’s Mitte. Gaitán’s decision to exhibit well-known artists, such as Tacita Dean, Goschka Macuga, Anri Sala and Wolfgang Tillmans, in Dahlem raises awareness for neighbourhoods other than the hipster-esque Mitte, Friedrichshain and Kreuzkölln. Gaitán here makes a clear statement against Berlin’s urban planning.
Those mourning the lack of aesthetic seductiveness at this biennial ought to climb up to the last step in the KW, where Zarouhie Abdalian’s owl watches over the buzzing city. Her gaze is directed at the TV tower, lovingly called ‘Alex’. Might this be the owl of Athena, an attribute of the Greek goddess of knowledge? Maybe it is exactly this: the beauty of knowledge, which transpires through the 8th Berlin Biennale.
Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld.
The Eighth Berlin Biennale ran from 29th May to the 3rd August 2014.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Art and music, Art and research, Art show, contemporary, music, Politics | Comments Off
Art exhibitions come in many volumes. The more and more frequent stentorian blockbusters make London’s art offering both important and substantive. However, the noise made by these grand shows – aided by dense crowds, zig-zag prams, loud conversations et al – can drown out the sometimes unassuming but potentially very rewarding tones of smaller displays dotted around the capital.
This display of a century of protest posters, packed into two plain, serene rooms at the V&A, try to jostle, agitate, manipulate and seek attention in various ways. The fact that each work has something specific and immediate to say means that being hung in close proximity to others does nothing to blunt each poster’s impact.
The posters have been loosely categorized under nine headings, ranging from revolution and agitprop, via war and activism, to more unmediated, home-made media. The latter includes self-made prints and digital messages, as in the viral video of an unknown woman in a blue bra beaten by Egypt’s military in 2011 in Tahrir Square.
These posters, as with anything that has elements of poetic, indirect communication about it, reward sustained contemplation with deeper insights and knowledge at many levels: aesthetic, semantic, historical, cultural, national and more. There is characteristically subtle but dark and even menacing word-play in a British poster that urges that the Tories not only be metaphorically kicked ‘out’ but, one can only assume, physically kicked ‘in’. This contrasts and reveals telling cultural differences with, a less aggressive, less punning German admonishment about the CDU’s complicity with Chile (‘Since Chile, we know exactly what the CDU thinks of democracy’).
Unlike much art and design, language is a critical tool of the protest idiom. Unsurprisingly, it often borders on the manipulative and borrows from advertising, modulating into ‘subvertising’, as one of the sections is called. In quite a few of the posters, the stark shapes of letters and words and their direct meanings vie with, and even overwhelm, the visual, as in the unequivocal message towards the Vietnam draft by Kiyoshi Kuromiya.
In the most successful, they combine and complement each other and create a communication that is multivalent, even existential, as in the self-critical poster made by Designers Republic (DR) of Sheffield, in 1995. DR were disenchanted with corporate-driven consumerism but acknowledge their role in the process. The imaginary company Pho-Ku (say it aloud – but not in polite company) stands for an anti-corporate identity in the face of increasing global branding.
If you are thinking of popping over to Tate Modern for the Matisse, but just don’t fancy the decibels and prams, it might be worth changing course to Kensington and remembering: s/he who shouts loudest certainly does not shout best.
Percy Darukhanawala is an MA graduand at the Courtauld
A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution is in Room 88 at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 2 November 2014.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: contemporary, Design, Posters, propaganda, Protest | Comments Off
The latest large-scale works by the British painter Jenny Saville (*1970) are for everyone who makes a fetish of delicate fingers and toes. The strong, but at the same time tender, black outlines of bodily endings and coloured heaps of flesh reveal much about the different stages of human embrace.
In 2012, Jenny Saville said in an interview with the Guardian that the older you get, the more doubtful you become – in a good way. Back then she compared being an artist to being an athlete. “You get quite fit on your toes when you’re really pushing. But then you finish a piece, and you have to start all over again.”
Even though, so far, each series of her paintings has referred to a different period of her life – which she has painterly depicted through her own physical appearance; but, she has never had to start all over again. Human flesh has always remained in the centre of her work. Interestingly, all her paintings are based on photographs since she dislikes working from life.
Her latest exhibition, which is her first solo-exhibition in London, provides more insights into her current state of mind and provides some great material for art historians. As remarkably sensational as usual, her latest works appeal not only to psychoanalysts, dermatologists, white or black colonialisers, but obviously also still to Larry Gagosian – who first showed her work in New York in 1999.
Especially the two works In the realm of the Mothers I (2012-14) and In the realm of the Mothers III (2014) echo the subject matter of the painting Odalisque (2012-14). The black male coloniser is on top of the female white colonised body. As a mother of two small children, Saville figuratively presents the physical act of how to become one, while painterly expressing a woman’s personal feelings towards the playful interaction between the nude female and the nude male body. Hence, Jenny Saville’s latest work still follows the same initial plan: Fleshing and sexing the canvas in reality.
In comparison to her earlier works, the swamping energy steaming from various colours of flesh seems to have clamed down. The flesh of her human bodies has changed its nuance and shape. In 2014, twenty-two years after graduating from Glasgow School of Art, Jenny Saville’s work is even more serious than ever, as she has moved into the realm of a post-painterly security.
Lisa Moravec is a graduate diploma student at the Courtauld.
Jenny Saville is at the Gagosian Gallery until the 26th July 2014.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: contemporary art, painting | Comments Off
‘Art and life’ is currently in its third incarnation after stops in Leeds and Kettle’s Yard. When it closes after the Dulwich offering in late September it will have been on the road for nearly a year, an impressive feat for an exhibition that covers only eleven, albeit prolific, years of British art.
Ben Nicholson is the headline act. But this exhibition investigates the period before he became arguably British modernism’s MVP. Before Barbara Hepworth Nicholson’s first wife was Winifred Roberts. As husband and wife Winifred and Ben travelled to Lugano in Switzerland – via Paris and exposure to European modernist developments – where they spent three consecutive winters in the early 1920s. Here they produced works of vitality and atmospheric gravity. The tissue paper wrapped around Winifred’s flowers in Cyclamen and Primula becomes another mountain to match with their dramatic backdrop. The austere use of muted colour by Ben in 1921-c.25 (Cortivallo, Lugano) expertly displays a glimpse of a Swiss winter. They developed as artists together, their relationship reciprocal. Winifred’s colour comes out in Ben’s First abstract painting, Chelsea, and Ben’s quasi-cubist tonal blocks are referenced by Winifred in Castagnola (Red Earth) and King’s Road, Chelsea. The relationship clearly of equal importance to each.
In 1926 Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood became the third member of this cast of British post-war painters. Wood was a colourful figure who came to the Nicholson’s home in Cumberland ‘like a meteor’. He was the freest of the three, lacking the shackles of an artistic heritage such as Ben Nicholson’s, whose father had been highly respected painter, as well as being exposed to European modernist movements early in his practice, before adopting the sometimes staid English traditionalism present in Winifred’s work. All three were different, but happily worked alongside one another, each learning new ways of painting. This is beautifully shown in the exhibition by the handing of three views of Northrigg Hill, one by each: Winifred’s traditional, Wood’s gestural, Ben’s austere.
The fourth member of the group came in 1928 when Wood and Ben discovered the work of Alfred Wallis. Wallis became Wood and the Nicholson’s Douanier Rousseau. An untrained individual who as a result made paintings as real as real life. Wallis was championed, especially, by Ben in London, where he exhibited him in a 7 and 5 show, and it gave both Ben and Wood encouragement in their pursuit of imbuing their work with life. Examples of this abound in the exhibition, but highlights are Le phare, Porthmeor Beach and Boat on a Stormy Sea.
But nearly as soon as the quartet was formed was it finished. In 1930 Wood died in mysterious circumstances, the Nicholson’s marriage was dissolving and Wallis was becoming more and more paranoid as the success earned for him by his London friends began to affect how he was treated in St. Ives. Overall, Art and Life succeeds in showing the development and complementary relationships of this group of British painters that were sadly all too fleeting.
Harry Laughland is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Art and Life is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 21st September 2014Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Abstract, British art, collaborations, Interwar, Twentieth century | Comments Off
Part of the Gothic Ivories Project, a free-to-use database that aims to catalogue every surviving European ivory carving of c.1200-1530, is to hold a bi-annual get-together, this year jointly held by the Courtauld and the British Museum. For a conference that swallowed up a medievalist’s weekend right before the annual International Medieval Conference at Leeds, apparently quite a number were made of stronger stuff than mere animal teeth to sit out the series of papers by early career academics and museum curators. The database is a very useful tool for the armchair connoisseur enabling one to compare ivories from all over the world on a laptop screen. But V&A curator Paul Williamson’s keynote on Saturday morning reminded the essential challenge for scholars. To understand these objects, we have retain a keen understanding of the wider historical context and the visual culture of the time, and of course cross-overs into other media by carvers working predominantly in ivory.
So we had an initial session of close-looking. Louvre curators Danielle Gaborit-Chopin and Elisabeth Antonine-Konig and conservator Juliette Levy-Hinstin investigated the object history of works in their collection such as the extraordinary Descent from the Cross and the dispersal of its figures and the separation of their heads in the tumult of the Revolution. From a completely different angle, Christian Nikolaus Opitz and Katherine Eve Baker both gave papers with less pretty pictures and more focus on documents, but vividly illustrating the creation, trade, function and storage of these objects in medieval life.
Post-lunch we were treated to Jack Hartnell’s object analysis of an ivory surgical knife, a tantalising suggestion of intertwined form and function, and a pair of enticingly macabre memento mori ivories by Stephen Perkinson, with a complex appeal for their original owners of humanistic allegory, anatomical detail and dark humour. The way that the nineteenth century received ivories was considered in the final session of the day, and the presentation of some nineteenth-century sketchbooks in papers by Franz Kirchweger and Benedetta Chiesi excited much of the audience interested in tracing the wanderings of these objects.
On Sunday the looking beyond ivories continued, with papers by Glyn Davies, Monique Blanc and Michele Tomasi on the Embriachi, a loosely-defined workshop who work primarily in bone rather than ivory, who show how difficult it is to categorise the medieval craftsman. The relationship of ivories to monumental works was looked at throughout the day by scholars working primarily on other material, Emily Guerry on the Saint Chapelle as a source of ivory iconography and Carla Varela Fernandes on the narrative panels on a stone tomb in Alcobaça perhaps looking to ivories.
The Gothic Ivories Project is only one tool in the arsenal of anyone wishing to study this genre. These two days showed the importance of viewing the object in person whenever possible, their documented history from the beginnings as pure ivory right through to the present, and their place in devotional and material culture to truly bring these precious objects to the level of regard held by easel painting and monumental sculpture.
See here for the full programme of these two days and some of the excellent papers there has not been space to mentionCategories: Research Rhythms | Tags: British Museum, Decorative arts, Gothic Ivories, Ivory, Medieval Art | Comments Off
The threshold of the visible, where frail light ebbs away into darkness, is the preferred territory of the Russian photographer Gueorgui Pinkhassov (b. 1952), whose work is the subject of a commercial exhibition of around 30 images currently on display at the Magnum Print Room. His pictures explore spaces and surfaces clogged with visual noise: interiors filled with cigarette smoke; grimy windows; murky water; cityscapes where the weak glow of dawn sunshine transforms human bodies into faceless silhouettes. In a 2008 photograph of a Moscow street taken through a windscreen, patches of snow rest on the glass like fallen clouds; in the road beyond, the dark figures that loiter among other cars, and the soaring, boxlike buildings that dwarf everything else in the scene, generate an atmosphere of quiet menace. Ordinary things – snow, people, cars – remain recognisable and highly concrete at the same time as their arrangement within the frame creates odd juxtapositions and distortions of scale. Pinkhassov is often attracted to abstract patterns, such as the tangle of arms, hands and torsos to be found in a 1995 photograph taken in Rajastan. But in his most absorbing images, like the Moscow street scene, the principal effect is not abstraction but defamiliarisation: the making strange of what has come to seem commonplace.
In recent decades, the prestigious Magnum agency to which Pinkhassov belongs has tended to define itself less as an outlet for traditional news photojournalism and more as a centre of excellence for collectible, aesthetically-sophisticated documentary photography – work often produced in the course of long-term personal projects which reflect members’ particular interests or distinctive visual style. In the present exhibition, compositions which exploit the weirdly beautiful effects of shadow and artificial light in hotels, shops and subways are displayed alongside photographs of the anti-government demonstrations which took place in Kiev earlier this year. Presented with minimal contextual information, these different types of images have been grouped together as evidence of the photographer’s creative vision. The emphasis here is not on the thing or event seen but on the virtuosic seeing eye.
Would it matter if documentary photography comes to be thought of, and valued, primarily as a mode of personal expression? Arguments to the effect that its ethical bite is likely to atrophy as a result of this development demand serious consideration. Yet in a world where many of the events encountered by photographers are stage-managed to make the interests of the powerful seem coherent and persuasive, it is useful to be reminded of how surreal and complicated the world can look. Photography like Pinkhassov’s trains us to resist easy acceptance of the (seemingly) transparent image, and to recognise that a subjective brain lurks behind every camera.
Tom Balfe is a visiting lecturer at the Courtauld.
Gueorgui Pinkhassov is at the Magnum Print Room until the 31st July 2014.
Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: contemporary, photography, Russian art | Comments Off
This new exhibition gives visitors an insight into the latest scientific research methods in the field of physical and cultural anthropology. But at the same time, the exhibition is also of interest for art historians since it changes our understanding of the human body. Ever since we have been capable of drawing and painting, we have visually recreated our own faces, body postures and body movements; and the emergence of new media, such as photography and technical animation has simply expanded our physical possibilities. Hence, the current high-tech exhibition at the British Museum juxtaposes the standard representation of the human body as it raises awareness to the decaying process of a human body instead of highlighting its genesis and the artistic recreation process of human faces and bodies – what art historians usually do. It is outstanding as it draws a compelling link between technology and mortality, and conveys the idea that a mummy is little but the residue of a human being preserved over several centuries.
While anthropologists have long studied the conditions of mummies’ teeth to determine the age at which the person died as well as to shed light on their diet and social class, this exhibition is unique that it provides more information about the general physical the condition of the human bodies. Anthropologists and art historians have more in common than you might think: both study the object itself before drawing on its visual representation to explain the reasoning of their thesis to others. For example, the penetration of the mummies with invisible light in CT has resulted in several x-ray images, in which invisible light appears white since the heavy materials of the bones have absorbed it. They are joined together to a cohesive image on a computer screen, and are used to create short 3-D animations to make the decaying process of the skeletons more easily accessible for non-experts.
Studying the physical anthropology of mummies may give us some time to rethink how we use and fuel our own mental and physical machine. Hence, the exhibition’s memento mori effect demonstrates that the Deleuzian “body without organs” is only a skeleton, coated with muscles to uphold our upright standing position, covered with a layer of vulnerable flesh. Without keeping our organic engine running our body is not very different to the skeleton of a mummy since our “coating” depends on it. The same observation, but the other way around, can be made when studying the artistic renditions of bodies. At first artists need to study the anatomy of a human body, and at the same time understand the possibilities and limitations of the media they are using to visualise it, just as in science. In light of this, the British Museum exhibition is highly significant for anthropologists and art historians as it promotes the closure of the gap between social science and the field of art history by strengthen cross-disciplinary approaches.
Lisa Moravec is a Graduate Diploma student at the Courtauld.
Ancient lives, New discoveries is at the British Museum til the 30th November 2014.Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Ancient Egypt, anthropology, art and science, Egyptology, science | Comments Off
If you plan on visiting the National Gallery this summer, you won’t want to miss the sun-drenched Mediterranean landscapes currently on view in “Artistic Exchanges: Corot, Costa, Leighton.” The paintings in this display reconstruct the interactions between three of Europe’s foremost artists of the nineteenth century: France’s Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Italy’s Giovanni Costa (1826-1903), and Britain’s Frederic Leighton (1830-1896). “Artistic Exchanges” insightfully draws attention to the admiration these men had for each other’s work, as well as their shared appreciation of the natural world.
Eager to establish a landscape tradition in his native country, the Roman-born Costa sought inspiration from foreign artists such as Corot, who was keenly interested in painting the poetic effects of light and atmosphere. Corot’s Avignon from the West (1836), for example, unites land and sky with one another through a harmonious pattern of sunshine and shadows. The interplay of light and form became a salient feature in Costa’s own compositions, such as Bocca d’Arno (c. 1895), a sweeping riverscape bathed in subdued blue-grey tones. The panoramic views of Italian countryside favored by Costa made a subsequent impact upon Frederic Leighton, a fellow admirer of Corot. Throughout his life, Leighton regularly traveled to Italy for painting excursions, on which trips he was occasionally accompanied by Costa after the two met in 1853.
The intimate exhibition space encourages viewers to draw comparisons between the landscapes by all three featured artists. Leighton’s An Outcrop in the Roman Campagna (c. 1866), for example, employs the broad, lateral format favored in Costa’s paintings. Meanwhile, the loose application of pigment in this landscape resembles Corot’s mode of handling in The Roman Campagna, with the Claudian Aqueduct (c. 1826). The two artists’ treatment of light is also similar, so much so that a different painting by Leighton—The Villa Malta, Rome (1860s)—was originally attributed to Corot. One of the most striking similarities of design appears between Costa’s A Morning at Botri, near Lerici (1878-81) and Corot’s The Leaning Tree Trunk (c. 1860-65), both of which the motif of sinuous branches backlit against a vaporous sky.
At the same time, the display also highlights the stylistic characteristics that made each artist’s approach to landscape painting unique, such as Costa’s delicate brushstrokes, Leighton’s solid forms, and Corot’s soft-focus delineation. Corot’s large series The Four Times of Day, which hangs in the adjacent gallery, is a fitting compliment to “Artistic Exchanges,” particularly because it was Leighton who originally purchased this work from the artist in 1865.
Overall, these landscapes construct a compelling visual argument that emphasizes how these three artists influenced one another over the course of their careers. It also underlines the international nature of landscape painting during the nineteenth century.
Lindsay Wells is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Artistic Exchanges is in Room 42 of the National Gallery from 7 May – 3 September 2014 .Categories: Courtauld Critics | Tags: Artistic exchange, Artists, Italy, landscape, nineteenth-century art, painting | Comments Off