Black is the Color of My True Love’s Square

Kazimir Malevich, Black Quadrilateral, oil on canvas, 1917

Kazimir Malevich, Black Quadrilateral, oil on canvas, 1917

The Whitechapel Gallery has turned what might have been the Sisyphean curatorial endeavour (and tortuous viewing experience) of revisiting a century of geometric abstraction into a thoughtful, engaging exhibition. Adventures of the Black Square‘s greatest strength lies in its presentation of early-20th-century avant-garde art. This is because it avoids hagiography from the very beginning: greeting the visitor with a work smaller than an A4 sheet of paper, Malevich’s Black Quadilateral of 1915. The exhibition by no means denies the heroism of the Constructivists or Suprematists, but it is resolutely uninterested in re-telling a familiar story and instead chooses to let the pieces tell their own in an appropriately iconoclastic way.

Exhibition view that foregrounds Andrea Zittel's Bench (after Donald Judd)

Exhibition view that foregrounds Andrea Zittel’s Bench (after Donald Judd)

This is an exhibition that is interested not in grandstanding, but in education, as evidenced by the content-driven wall texts that accompany the pieces on display in the first part of the exhibition. These are informative and avoid making blanket ideological statements. Viewers are told, for example, that the Latvian artist Gustav Klutsis, whose striking 1922 designs for loudspeakers are included in the hang, participated in the October Revolution but was shot on Stalin’s orders in 1938. They are not, however, expected to acquiesce to platitudes, or make flash judgments of their own.

The international focus of the exhibition is also noteworthy. While on one hand, the curators’ decision to include not only lesser-known Europeans (ever heard of André Cadere, an itinerant Romanian artist who was best known in the 1970s European art community for leaving cylindrical wooden batons behind in the corners of other people’s exhibitions?), but also contemporaneous artists from present-day India, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Pakistan. While this is admirable and long-overdue, here the exhibition could have used some more context. It opts for a generic tale of ‘alternate modernities’ where it could have told a compelling story about geopolitics. This story deserves a closer look, especially given the globalized scope of the second half of the exhibition.

André Cadere and a baton

André Cadere and a baton

The Whitechapel Gallery has devoted its whole second floor to a post-1969 continuation of the story of geometric abstraction. There is a certain amount of welcome leveling that happens on the second floor where, for example, an Israeli artist and a Palestinian counterpart are included on equal footing, and internationally-recognized art stars hang next to those only emerging or under-recognized. Some of this seems a bit facile, however, as when Social Practice artists and makers of high-priced baubles, sometimes on a social theme, Liam Gillick and Andrea Zittel are allowed to speak for the ‘reclamation’ of Constructivist ethos, or simply hasty. Perhaps it is because the way in which historiographers are still writing the late-20th century is too fraught with political tension that Adventures of the Black Square sidesteps specific references to international relations, contemporary economic practices, or even the entrenchment of the contemporary art world within the globalized economy. Here, however, the black square escapes its handlers.

Patricia Manos is an MA student at the Courtauld

Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015 is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 6 April 2015.

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.

The Mission of a Contemporary Parsifal?: How Christoph Schlingensief opened up the wounds of a traumatised Germany’


Christoph Schlingensief’s 1982 film Für Elise sets a bleak scene. A lone man stands in the middle of a provincial street on top of a thick blanket of snow. As the man lifts a trumpet to his mouth and begins to play, the camera pans out to reveal the full extent of the scene: where black, skeletal trees line the street on either side; and dark, hunched figures shuffle and trudge through the frozen crust on the pavement. In fits and starts, the man crudely plays Das Deutschlandlied, the longstanding German national anthem composed by Joseph Haydn. But this public display of nationalistic pomp is strangled by its vacuous setting. The warm and wholesome sound of the trumpet is strained in the thin, chilled air. The optimistic tone of the tune is absurd in this god-forsaken winter scene (complete with a hobbling street cleaner). And the implied message of the song – “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles…” – seems totally incomprehensible and misplaced; both in its stunted recital and in relation to its disinterested audience. The man’s playing is simultaneously inept, insignificant, inappropriate and invisible. His feeble ode to Germany fails to strike a chord with the people in the street. The old national identity conjured up by Das Deutschlandlied is dead and gone, and the scene is saturated with an icy air of melancholy.

Sarah Hegenbart’s paper in the Courtauld’s Research Forum explored how Christoph Schlingensief’s early works in film wrestled with Germany’s post-war identity and its burden of collective guilt. Via Sigmund Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) and Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s The Inability to Mourn (1967), the seminar traced how Schlingensief’s films immersed themselves in this state melancholy in order to enact the ‘necessary’ depression advised in the psychoanalytical literature: facing the past in order to break through it. After observing this melancholy in early works like Für Elise and Menu Total (1986), Sarah’s paper identified this melancholic period’s conclusion as manifest in the compassionate breakthrough in Schlingensief’s later projects, such as his staging of Parsifal in Bayreuth, 2004-2007, and his on-going Opera Village project in Burkina Faso.

The theoretical perspective of the paper generated some fascinating discussion around questions of how psychoanalytical frames can be applied to collective identities and nations. Overall, however, the paper’s sensitive engagement with the moralistic value of Schlingensief’s work and the message of his career was less open to debate: whereby, after his tormented grappling with the dark days of Germany’s Nazi past, his later work amounted to a plea for love, love at all costs.

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Emily Carr, In the Forest, B.C., c. 1935, oil on paper, mounted on multi-ply paperboard, Overall: 45.8 x 30.2 cm (18 1/16 x 11 7/8 in.), Frame: 63.2 x 48.1 cm (24 7/8 x 18 15/16 in.). ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Professor Kathleen Coburn, 2004, 2004/128

Emily Carr, In the Forest, B.C., c. 1935, oil on paper, mounted on multi-ply paperboard, ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Professor Kathleen Coburn, 2004, 2004/128

From the Forest to the Sea brilliantly turns the disadvantages of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s small exhibition space into an opportunity: the gallery’s long vista — a corridor rather than an enfilade of rooms — and its changing wall colours firmly encourage visitors’ progress from green to blue, from dark to light, from the forest to the sea.  To Canadian artist Emily Carr, movement was life. As she wrote in her diary: ‘I think trees love to toss and sway; they make such happy noises.’ Such organic, undulating movement animates both her paintings and this exhibition, which eschews chronology to weave a looping narrative.

The exhibition opens with paintings of trees dated to the 1930s, near the end of Carr’s life. Dynamic but earnest, the forest is used to present the landscape of British Columbia, rather than to introduce the artist herself. Yet if the paintings are clearly spontaneous, they are not artless: echoes of Kandinsky, Orphism and Cubism reveal Carr’s European training.  Next to the forest paintings, a display case with North-western aboriginal artefacts sets the scene further; documenting the artistic legacy of Canada’s natives became Carr’s avowed mission in 1907 when she discovered their totem-poles and sculpture during an holiday in Alaska.

Emily Carr, Totem and Forest, 1931, oil on canvas, 129.3 x 56.2 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust, VAG 42.3.1, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art

Emily Carr, Totem and Forest, 1931, oil on canvas, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Emily Carr Trust, VAG 42.3.1, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art

The illustrated diary she kept on this trip has recently uncovered in a collector’s basement and is exhibited for the first time. It is open to the pages of the artist’s first encounter with a totem pole: behatted but overwhelmed, Emily and her sister gape at the reliefs helpfully described by their chaperone. The focus in on aboriginal art, yet the scene is one of refined European gentility. Here, as in most of Carr’s works, aboriginal people are absent. Artworks alone are memorialised and pre-emptively ‘musealised’, if with deep-felt longing for what she described as a ‘broader,’ ‘piercing’ art.

Emily Carr, Blunden Harbour, c. 1930, Oil on canvas, 129.8 x 93.6 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Photo © NGC

Emily Carr, Blunden Harbour, c. 1930, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Photo © NGC

The disappearance of people is a problem for the exhibition itself: comparing the painting Blunden Harbour with the ethnographic photograph on which it is based, a wall-panel concludes: ‘…she transformed it [the photograph] in curious ways…’.  If cautious in revealing Carr’s blind spots, the exhibition’s texts are nuanced in their presentation of aboriginal objects: as the exhibition’s curators were advised by the Haida chief and master carver James Hart, the inferences of Western anthropology are sometimes contradicted by native interpretations.

Carr is best known for her depictions of aboriginal art, but this was not the only focus of her long career. Indeed, the exhibition opens and closes with images of nature, often sketched close to the painter’s home. As the room ‘Knowledge and Experimentation’ reveals, Carr continuously re-interpreted this familiar nature in the light of her changing personal and stylistic interests. Nothing expresses this more clearly than the exhibition’s final juxtaposition of Beacon Hill Park (1909) with Broom Beacon Hill (1937). The artist said it herself: ‘Everything is green. Everything is waiting and still. Slowly things begin to move, to slip into their places…. Colours that you had not noticed come out, timidly or boldly.’

Costanza Beltrami is an MA student at the Courtauld.

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 8 March 2015.

Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand (British Museum)

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan state, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930, 1018.1). © Trustees of the British Museum

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan state, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930, 1018.1). © Trustees of the British Museum

It is easy to forget that curatorial control is not absolute. During the preparations for any show project curators must contend with numerous obstacles. These might include time constraints, lack of high quality objects or works of lasting significance, as well as gaps in the collection, from material illustrations to knowledge about the provenance or exact utility of enigmatic objects. Moreover, many of these obstacles arise well before considerations of public duty, both to those who view the displays, and to those who may be represented in them. Arguably such difficulties become more pronounced when an exhibition strives to provide audiences with insights into the wealth of recent and contemporary histories of unfamiliar cultures.

Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards appears plagued by many of these issues. Alexandra Green, the recently appointed Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia, has clearly fought an uphill battle against the British Museum’s neglect for expansion and upkeep of its collections from the regions of Thailand and Burma. To be sure, the display contains some noteworthy objects. These include a large and intricately carved Buddha’s footprint, a late nineteenth-century Burmese cosmology manuscript, and an early 1900s stucco figure of a Shan strong man, whose confident demeanor is reinforced by the highly stylized tattoos that cover his body, revealing him as a man of spiritual and physical fortitude.

However, the low aesthetic value of many works in the show draws attention away from these higher quality pieces. Contemporary popular posters, though of religious significance for modern day Thai and Burmese Buddhists, mostly appear cartoonish and overly standardized. These features distract from the underlying sentiment portrayed, for instance, in a reverse glass painting showing the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa. Infamously regarded today as an alcoholic cock-fighter, but also a horseman of considerable skill, he is almost nobly depicted while surrounded by his favorite amusements.

Reverse glass painting of the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa about 1990. Burma/Myanmar. Pigment and foils on glass (1996, 0507, 0.6). Donated by Ralph and Ruth Isaacs. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Reverse glass painting of the nat spirit U Min Kyaw Zwa about 1990. Burma/Myanmar. Pigment and foils on glass (1996, 0507, 0.6). Donated by Ralph and Ruth Isaacs. © Trustees of the British Museum.

The true strength of Ms. Green’s curatorial skill reveals itself in her reimagining of the purposes of Buddhist exhibitions. Her focus on ‘how the principal religious systems in the region are revealed in lively daily practices’ can be transformative. Flanking the entrance to the exhibit, a display case features modern-day shrine offerings; whether a ‘money tree’, or dish soap, snacks and juice boxes, the items may elicit laughter, but also help us to focus on the sincerity of common religious practices. They serve as reminders that Buddhism is a living religion adaptable to the demands of present times.

Indeed, the show comes at a politically strained moment for politics in the region, just on the heels of a military coup in Thailand. These sorts of social disturbances risk the continuity and development of lived practices, while also affecting the way those cultures are represented abroad (witness the original title for the show, Power and Protection, a phrase found peppered around the exhibit, was deemed inappropriate by the British Museum in light of current events). That the two circumstances are intertwined makes for an exhibit that is more powerful than the sum of its arts.

Ethan A. Perets is a MA student at the Courtauld Institute where he studies the history and conservation of Buddhist art.

Pilgrims, Healers, and Wizards: Buddhism and Religious Practices in Burma and Thailand is at the British Museum until 11th January 2015.

Magiciens De La Terre


In the second installment of the autumn 2014 Frank Davis Memorial Lecture Series, Professor Sarah Wilson considered Centre Pompidou’s re-staging of its seminal exhibition Magiciens De La Terre on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. Wilson began the lecture by proposing that both artworks and exhibitions could change one’s understanding of time. Outside the entrance to the original Magiciens show, Neil Dawson’s steel sculptural installation Globe (1989) depicted an earth with its own pulse and tremendous fragility. It underlined some of the concerns about time and space that energised dialogues between post-structuralist theory and global visual practice in the 1980s and 1990s. Wilson’s lecture situated Magiciens, a show that brazenly sought to challenge Eurocentric values with a survey of contemporary art practice and intercultural exchange on a global scale, within a wider moment that reconceived ideas of virtuality, globalism and memory.

Wilson first placed Magiciens in a series of efforts leading up to 1989 that explored the variety of artistic exchanges in Paris during the first half of the twentieth century, including the Pompidou’s 1981 ‘Paris-Paris’ and Centre de la Vieille Charite’s 1986 exhibition La Planète affolée.  These exhibitions, reflected other efforts to reimagine roles for history and the objects that express it. In this regard, one seminal exhibition was Jean Lyotard’s 1985 Les Immatériaux, a companion to his theoretical articulations of postmodernity that favored interactions between sound and technology, the charged exhibition space and its curatorial documents, rather than experiences of discrete objects.  Wilson reread some of the objects in Magiciens relationally rather than discretely, celebrating lesser known works by artists including Clido Mereles, Huang Yong Ping and Ilya Kabakov. With this remembering in mind she discussed the organization of Jacques Derrida’s lecture ‘The Concept of the Archive: A Freudian Impression’ (later renamed Archive Fever) at the Freud Museum in 1994.

Using Derrida’s idea that archives are both violent and tender, Wilson turned to the problems and successes of reconstruction of Archive Fever, Les Immateriaux and Magiciens. While the symposium ’20 Years of Archive Fever’ brought back many original participants with new webs of recollections as well as homages to Derrida and his legacies, the Les Immatériaux reconstruction at Kunstverein Düsseldorf offered clarity at the expense of the original show’s energy. To describe Magicien’s restaging, Wilson used painting metaphors. Towards anamorphosis, the show featured disorientations in scale as well as different emphases and juxtapositions. Towards vanitas, Magiciens offered poignant reminiscences of the art world of 1989 as well as an opportunity to affirm its values to a new set of viewers.

While leaving the lecture, audience members were given a poem by Miklós Erdély called ‘Time Mobius’, that spoke about processes of construction and reconstruction at the heart of learning. The last lines declare, ‘Beware of yourself/ That Readying is Ready Already’. By returning to the original circumstances of these exhibitions, and treating exhibitions and artworks as memory devices that activate multiple histories, Wilson’s lecture showed how these self-critical endeavors have been ‘ready already’ for future generations of viewers and readers.

Germany – Memories of a Nation: a 600-year history in objects (British Museum)

Georg Baselitz Eagle, 1977. Paper Print © Georg Baselitz 2014

Georg Baselitz Eagle, 1977. Paper Print © Georg Baselitz 2014

Entering the dimly lit exhibition space for “Germany – Memories of a Nation” feels exciting, as does being greeted by a video installation of the fall of the Berlin Wall, people on the street celebrating, driving in old trabants and waving blissfully at the camera. Germany is united again! Yet, celebrations are accompanied by a somewhat gloomy quote from Georg Baselitz, whose Eagle unpretentiously finds its space in the corner: “What I could never escape was Germany, and being German.” What is one to expect?

Albrecht Dürer Melancholia, 1514. Engraving © British Museum

Albrecht Dürer Melancholia, 1514. Engraving © British Museum


The somewhat confusing messages at the entrance are soon replaced by a celebratory mood with the following displays. Muted green and blue walls accentuating the old nation’s wealth with paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger and softly lit vitrines inhabited by ancient maps, precious coins, beakers and tankards all allude to the great history of the Holy Roman Empire and the many cities it contained. They used to be German – but are no longer. It is only through the objects themselves that the complexity of “German” identity is implied, one that does not necessarily correspond with either historical or contemporary national boundaries.

The objects on display are often rather splendid choices, and really do show the best of German culture: a Gutenberg Bible, Dürer’s magnificent prints, Bauhaus designs and post-war works by Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. It is obvious from the display and its presentation that this is a celebration of a culture looking to reinvent itself, perfectly executed after Erich Hobsbawm’s “Invention of Tradition.” Encapsulated in this aim seems to be a need to emphasise that Germany is more than what happened between 1938 and 1945, or even between 1914 and 1989. The miniscule part of the exhibition that deals with the First and Second World War and the country’s East-West division seems unnecessarily cut short, although the replica of the entrance gate to Buchenau is well placed in a harshly lit corner, evoking the bleak horrors of the concentration camps.

Exhibition Poster “Germany – memories of a nation” at Entrance of British Museum © Julia Secklehner

Exhibition Poster “Germany – memories of a nation” at Entrance of British Museum © Julia Secklehner

In light of the fact that more recent history tends to be at the forefront of people’s minds, the exhibition tackles the last 70 years of Germany’s history like it was just a little glimpse in its greatness. And while this may have been done purposefully so to show “what else there is,” it seems ignorant at the worst, or as a diminishment of what happened at the best. In reference to the exhibition title, we are shown quite clearly what “Germany” wants to remember and, more strikingly, what it doesn’t. In a sense, this marks the exhibition as authentic- why remember all the horror if there is also a more glorious history to commemorate? But it also raises questions of historical responsibility, which remain unanswered here.

An exhibition spanning over 600 years inevitably requires abbreviation. But where to abbreviate in this context is crucial, and I am unsure whether the resulting overview of objects does “the German powerhouse” justice.

Julia Secklehner is a PhD student at the Courtauld Institute working on national identities in caricature in interwar Central Europe.

“Germany – Memories of a Nation” is at the British Museum until 25 January 2015.

Reading Race in Some Passing Gestures from the 1960s


A quiz in the April 1952 issue of Ebony Magazine faced its readers with a grid of black and white photographic portraits of sixteen American faces. The title of the page almost excitedly posed the affronting question ‘Which is Negro? Which is White?’, as the editors relished in the problem of reading race into these unnamed people. Through the portraits’ contrasting backgrounds – jumping between light and shadow – the image has echoes of the regimented black/white segmentation of a chessboard, yet the neutral faces of the portrait sitters flatten any such distinct black/white pattern within the grid. The portraits sit as so many grey areas within the whole. In this levelling effect, the image stages the phenomenon of ‘passing’ as it existed in the 1950s; whereby African Americans with paler skin tones sought to ‘pass’ for white, and subsequently ‘pass’ through the checks of a racially prejudiced White American society, and live comfortably like an ordinary (white) American.

Quiz from Ebony Magazine, April 1952

Quiz from Ebony Magazine, April 1952

Levi Prombaum’s paper fleshed out this scenario of passing through a dramatic narration of scenes from Douglas Sirk’s 1959 film, Imitation of Life, which he delivered over several stills to suitably cinematic effect. The film follows the story of Annie Johnson, an African American, and her light-skinned daughter Sarah-Jane. Over the course of the film, Sarah-Jane becomes fixated on the opportunities of social mobility offered in the white middle class world that her and her mother have come into contact with, which eventually leads her to renouncing her black heritage (and yet more tragically, her mother) and adopting all the necessary signifiers of whiteness to ‘pass’ into the society that she craved. At the point at which this kind of ‘passing story’ faded from American popular culture during the 1960s, Levi Prombaum’s research has uncovered a prominent legacy, or scar, of the social phenomenon in the work of certain American artists working at this time.

The main focus of the seminar was the work of Alex Katz, whose brooding self-portrait, Passing, presents a tantalising invitation to consider his investment in the passing narrative. Over a captivating visual sequence, the paper traced how Katz’s grounded, solid profile from his original self-portrait was subtly decentred through its careful replication in different colour ranges and media. The resulting range of slightly varying images was demonstrated to create a kind of field for passing, in which the images fluidly ‘pass’ for one another, for the original, and for Katz himself, whose identity (as the American-born son of Russian-Jewish immigrants) ever eludes us behind the different washes of colour (paintwork which is itself symbolically thin and faintly see-through: bursting the bubble of skin-deep social determinism along racial lines). In these compelling terms, Katz’s paintings were considered as meditations upon superficiality and integrity, opacity and transparency: reverberating within the very frame of racial anxiety that dictated the passing narrative.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision (National Portrait Gallery)

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912 Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas

Virginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell c.1912
Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © National Trust / Charles Thomas

The idea that an exhibition of assorted paintings, photographs and objects can constitute a ‘portrait’ of someone is an interesting one. Bloomsbury biographer Frances Spalding’s exhibition on Virginia Woolf has added another chapter to the interdisciplinary history of Bloomsbury by confronting the usually only vaguely acknowledged influence of the visual arts on this heroine of literary Modernism. However, it can be complacent about historical stereotype and at times its principle of selection borders on sheer miscellany.

In the first room, a photograph of a ravaged Alfred Lord Tennyson by Woolf’s aunt Julia Margaret Cameron joins other portraits of nineteenth-century luminaries. These are delightful to see, but they are of dubious relation to the subject of the exhibition. Together with a rather sadly-skied allegory by G. F. Watts, contextualised as a friend of Woolf’s parents, they represent a black-and-white, whiskery ‘Victorian period’ out of which Bloomsbury (and ‘Modernism’) miraculously appeared.

Bloomsbury members certainly reacted against their Victorian parents’ ways of writing and painting, not least Roger Fry, who went from Berensonian aesthete to Cézanne fanatic. However, I would caution against falling for Bloomsbury’s own ploy to cover up its late-nineteenth-century origins to appear cutting edge. In the excellent accompanying book, Sandy Nairne singles out an interesting statement of Fry’s that compares Woolf’s Modernist language to the verbosity of Henry James, and historical comparisons like this might have been fun to see played out through the objects on show. We are also promised an insight into Woolf’s overlooked political life, though the inclusion of a distracting Picasso drawing commissioned for an event at which Woolf happened to sit on stage compromises the show’s credibility.

T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1924 National Portrait Gallery, London

T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf by Lady Ottoline Morrell, June 1924
National Portrait Gallery, London

One highlight is an actual portrait of Woolf by her sister, Vanessa Bell, slumped in an orange armchair and Vuillard-like hard at work with needle and wool (c. 1912). It is a provocatively gendered piece: this is an aspiring author – the artist’s sister – not writing, but knitting. In the other paintings on show, Duncan Grant appears as inconsistent. His early portrait of James Strachey against a red screen (1910) is the first in a very successful trademark genre of portraits of people reading, though his memento mori Still Life with Bust of Virginia Woolf (c. 1960) is a decidedly dodgy exercise in paragone and defuses the emotional force of Woolf’s nearby suicide note. Particularly interesting photographs of Woolf from Vogue are nice reminders of Bloomsbury’s talent for self-publicity and its privilege.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939 Estate Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images

Virginia and Leonard Woolf by Gisele Freund, 1939
Estate Gisèle Freund / IMEC Images

This small show makes an interesting case for the significance of assorted visual material in understanding an author. But that anecdotal tendency is worrying because it risks presenting, as many have done before, Bloomsbury itself as something anecdotal. The exhibition clearly makes the point that Bloomsbury occupied a very well-connected place in artistic (not to say political) milieux in the first half of the twentieth century in Britain. But did we already know that? And was Bloomsbury something more?

Thomas Hughes is a PhD student at the Courtauld working on the language of art writing in the later nineteenth century.

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision was at the National Portrait Gallery from July 16 to October 26 2014.