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Posts tagged ‘Tate Modern’

Kazimir Malevich: Beyond the Black Square

Whether it is the intention of the exhibition or not, Tate Modern’s brilliant new retrospective exhibition of Polish-born Russian Artist, Kazimir Malevich, shows that there is truly more beyond the Black Square. Leading the ranks in an artistic revolution which went from Cubo-Futurism to the simplified geometric forms of Suprematism, Malevich’s most famous and enduring work is a simple, stark and enigmatic black square set on a white canvas. Of course since 1915 when the black square was created, many artists have gone down the single-colour-on-canvas route, and a contemporary art museum is not a contemporary art museum without at least a Blue Canvas or an Untitled (Red Rectangle) to delight and frustrate art audiences in equal measure. But at the time when Malevich’s Black Square was created, it marked a dramatic and stark departure from everything that had gone before it.

Despite its very obvious simplicity, it carries with it an enigmatic complexity as an artistic gesture. Looking at this dark patch of paint, one can almost feel a suppression of joy, a rebellious desire for change, a stark reaction to the turbulence of war, a zero hour in the world of modern art. And yet while it is perhaps understandable why this painting caused such a stir, both positive and negative in the time of its creation, Tate’s new exhibition shows that Malevich had so much more to offer as an artist, and much much more of it in invigorating compositionally intricate colour.

Black Square (1915)

Black Square (1915)

Self Portrait (1908)

Self Portrait (1908)

The start of the show demonstrates a certain reliance by Malevich on the artists who had gone before him, and a very clear influence of the avant-garde of post-impressionism, particularly the bold colours of the Fauvists and the flattening of perspective and exotisim advocated by Gauguin. Those influences are particularly obvious in Malevich’s early self-portrait, whose backdrop of exotic nudes and use of a multi-coloured palate recalls the work of Matisse and Gauguin alike. However, very quickly, we see the influence of other artists slipping away as Malevich starts to find a more unique style of his own. While relying to some extent on cubist notions, Malevich rejects the subject matter topical of the works of the Paris avant-garde and starts painting heavily geometric works based on the peasants and traditions of Russia. Painting simplified figures in cubist almost metallic forms, Malevich’s portraits are static like robots, referencing Futurism whose artistic reach was spreading across Europe, and yet exuding a rurality and authentic subject matter which is far departed from the industrialisation which characterises most works of the Futurist movement.

Early works 

Head_of_a_Peasant_Girl Kasimir Malevich007 Kazimir-Malevich,-The-Woodcutter,-1912_original

But Malevich’s early cubo-futurist works were only the beginning, and it was when, in 1914, Malevich painted his first black rectangle – Black Quadrilateral - that the artist took a clear and drastic departure from figurative works, presenting his ideas in The Last Exhibition of Futurist Painting 0.10 in what was then Petrograd in 1915. Calling his new direction Suprematism, Malevich believed that “the artist can be a creator only when the forms in his picture have nothing in common with nature” and dismissing the artists of the past as “counterfeiters of nature” he went about creating works which are starkly geometric and lacking in any feature which could link them to the natural world. The paintings which resulted from this period are a wonderful collection of energetic and colourful works (with the exception of the Black Square of course) which I loved. There is a complexity of composition in the way that these various shapes are interlayed and angled which cannot be underestimated, and in seeing these works, I saw that here Malevich really was creating from scratch rather than relying on nature for reference.

Suprematist works

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However Malevich could only take his Suprematist ideas so far, and by the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, he consciously began to “kill off” paintings, gradually draining his paintings of colour in works such as White Suprematist Cross (1920) – a white cross on a white background – and Dissolution of a Plane (1917) where the colour is gradually fading out of the edges of a red rectangle. This was what Malevich called the “death” of painting, and in 1919, Malevich wrote that “Painting died, like the old regime, because it was an organic part of it”and what followed was several years when the artist dabbled in transferring his ideas to architecture, and teaching.

White Suprematist Cross (1920)

White Suprematist Cross (1920)

However, it was a temporary death, for a few years later, Malevich came to resurrect his painting, and interestingly, when he did so, he returned not to his Suprematist ideas, but to the cubo-futurist figuration of his early years. It was almost as though his Suprematist manifesto took such efforts that when he returned to painting, almost as a newcomer to it, he found himself drawn more to the instinctive way of painting which was inherent within him from the start. Which just goes to show: the efforts of stripping out nature and forging something new in art may create something of a stir or a statement, but ultimately we always return to the same thing: depicting the world around us, for that is arguably the true purpose and calling of art – to narrate and reference the lives we all live.

Later works

Malevich142 Later

In short this is a marvellous new show which provides a comprehensive review of this important artist, introducing his work to many who, like me, were not familiar with his oeuvre before. Beyond the paintings and the excellent chronological layout of the exhibition, my favourite section was Room 10, which takes a break from the paintings, and is like a mini-retrospective within the bigger story, depicting the whole of Malevich’s career through his works on paper. As such, the display provides a fascinating insight into both Malevich’s preparation of his paintings, and also how quickly his works transformed from cubism to futurism to suprematism and back again. A complex transition truly worthy of a retrospective exhibition on the scale Tate has so ably put on show this summer.

Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art is on at Tate Modern, London until 26th October 2014.

Matisse at Tate: Colour Cut-Out to a Career Climax

The new Matisse blockbuster at London’s Tate Modern is a show of inexorable joy: of that there can be no doubt. With its whimsical vivid colouration, and playful motifs of sea algae and birds, dancers and blue nudes, it is an exhibition which is full of the happy spirit of the Mediterranean. And yet all of this was created during and immediately after a time when Europe was caught up in the ravaged turmoil of the second world war. How Matisse then managed to create such spirited works, not only during a time of such cataclysm, but also when he was himself frail and confined largely to his bed or to a wheelchair, is one question poised by this exhibition. The answer? Colour was Matisse’s escape from the horrors of war, and cut-outs the vehicle with which he entered the last great hurrah of his groundbreaking career in art.

In bringing together this show of over a hundred of Matisse cut-outs, Tate has managed a real coup. For these works, which dominated the last period of Matisse’s creative output, are merely gouache-painted paper, brought together with paper, sizzors and glue. The result are pictures which retain the same vibrancy that they had when they were first made, but are nevertheless so fragile that few ever leave the national art galleries which they now call home. Yet here they all are, together, many for the first time since they were created.

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The result is an exhibition which can not fail to please. Starting with the original artwork and resulting first edition of Matisse’s best known artist book, Jazz (which I often paused over in Chelsea’s Taschen store but never purchased before they stopped the reprint, much to my regret), the exhibition moves onto what is essentially the genesis of what is to follow – the Oceana works. With one of the vast works, which originally acted as wall decoration in Matisse’s Paris apartment, featuring figures of the sky, and the other of the sea, these works were inspired by a visit to Tahiti 16 years before. But more importantly, the sea work was pretty much the first time that Matisse used the cut out image of coral, an image which was to become iconic of much of his cut-out works thereafter.

Oceana

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That coral is indeed prevalent in the works that follow, as are the vivd range of colours cut from sheets painted by his dedicated studio assistants. I loved room 5 of the exhibition, which attempts to recreate Matisse’s studio in Vence in Southern France, whose walls were decorated, floor to ceiling, with cut-out works. Seeing the cut-outs grouped together like this makes them come alive as a collection. The variety of colours and shapes and sizes make the corals almost vibrate with the energy emanating from the collected cut-outs, and together the colours sing like an hallelujah chorus.

Coral cut-outs

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As satisfying as these collected colours undoubtedly are, I could not help but admire Matisse’s famous blue nudes, all four of which are brought together for the first time. Intrinsically simple in both colour, and the seamless way in which they are cut from a single sheet of painted blue-paper, they really are images to be admired – and as a set they never worked better.

The exhibition ends with Matisse cut-outs on a grand scale, from Tate’s famous Snail (which was the closest Matisse comes to abstract, and in my opinion perhaps the least successful because of it), to The Mermaid in which Matisse intended, through use of bird, coral and fruit motifs, to bring the outside into his studio, something which he surely achieved with all-encompassing effect.

_70288189_masks 6a00e00989a58088330176166fd020970c HMB334 The Snail 1953 by Henri Matisse 1869-1954 20130426-102711

I wasn’t expecting to love this show. I’m not a huge fan of Matisse’s oil paintings which too often appear to me badly executed and fussy. But the simplicity and vibrancy of the cut-outs really appealed to me. It demonstrates the power of composition and the effect which simple colours can have when laid alongside each other. Many have criticised the cut-outs as mere child-play. But that’s a very easy observation to make when the idea has already been generated and all the behind-the-scenes work and planning exhaustibly executed. Masterpieces, perhaps, these works are not. Some may even pass them off as mere wall-coverings. But as a collective they are full of an inherent and enticing energy and joy which fewer more “masterful” artworks will ever be able to generate with such consistency or strength.

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Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is on at Tate Modern, London until 7 September 2014

Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist

Following hot on the heels of Tate’s superb mini-exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair, an artist previously unknown to so many art-buffs in the UK (but whose work completely revolutionised my approach to my work, and got me thinking about how I can use gouache in my paintings) comes another retrospective exhibition of a relative unknown as far as big art names go: Ibrahim El-Salahi, whose significant 7-room solo show has recently opened at Tate Modern in London. And what a success it is.

Coming from Sudan (born 1930), El-Salahi’s retrospective is Tate Modern’s first retrospective dedicated to an African modernist. It will also most likely be the first many visitors to the show will have heard of this Modernist artist. Yet El-Salahi’s work is nothing short of stunning – a visual delight of painting, drawing and calligraphy which comes together in a retrospective which exhibits a level of imaginative expression the likes of which I have not seen since discovering the works of Dali. The complexity of some of his drawn black and white images is nothing short of stunning – a mix of figurative and more expressive forms, but culminating to form a visual assault on the viewer whose eyes simply do not know where to begin in the appreciation of these works.

Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1962-3) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1962-3) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Centred on the recent acquisition of Tate Modern, the significant piece entitled Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams (1961-5), the exhibition starts off with the artist’s most recent works before delving backing in time to paintings loaded with African earthly brown tones, burnt umbers and yellow ochres representing, as El-Salahi himself says, the African foundations which pervade his work. But asides from the African earthy colours and the occasional tribal mask, El-Salahi’s early work exhibits a complexity of imagery which extends way beyond the continent which has so characterised his work. Islamic imagery, for example, is featured strongly, with Islamic lettering and the crescent moon prominent throughout the show, while perhaps the strongest influence comes from a surprisingly significant immersion in Western culture, an exposure encountered when El-Salahi won a scholarship to London’s Slade School of Art in the 1950s, with particular references to Picasso’s jarred cubist figures showing through from then onwards.

They Always Appear (1966-8) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

They Always Appear (1966-8) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Al-Kas (1964) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Al-Kas (1964) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

The Last Sound (1964)  © Ibrahim El-Salahi

The Last Sound (1964) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Funeral and the Crescent (1963) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Funeral and the Crescent (1963) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Vision of the Tomb (1965) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

Vision of the Tomb (1965) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

The exhibition moves to the 1970s, a difficult time for El-Salahi when he was compelled to return from London to Sudan to take up the role of Deputy Undersecretary of Culture at the Sudanese Ministry of Information, under the military dictatorship of General Gaafar Nimeiry. However, his tenure ended abruptly in the mid-70s when, in the aftermath of a failed military coup, El-Salahi was accused of anti-governmental activities and imprisoned for 6 months. The art works which follow are abruptly different from the warm earthy umber works of the previous room. Stripped of colour, these black and white works, generally drawn in ink on paper, appear to reject the warm colours of El-Salahi’s African heritage, but are nevertheless some of the most powerful works in the show, demonstrating incredibly skilled draughtsmanship and imagination which is beyond what most of us are capable of. Apparently El-Salahi would begin these works by drawing a small image, the likes of which would gradually expand outwards as he would add paper to allow the image to spread.

The Inevitable (detail) (1984-4) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

The Inevitable (detail) (1984-4) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

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From Visual Diary of Time-Waste Palace (1996-7) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

From Visual Diary of Time-Waste Palace (1996-7) © Ibrahim El-Salahi

In the 1990s, El Salahi, now in self-imposed exile from Sudan, moved to Oxford, and there, inspired by the verdant British countryside began a series of tree-inspired images. With these, El Salahi injected colour back into his work, and also dappled in more linear, geometric forms. This in turn led to the present, where El Salahi appears to be returning to the earthier browns of his earlier period, but also dapples again in some of the more detailed black and white ink on paper works. But whether brown, black or white, these works, based on a recent trip to Granada in Spain and largely depicting Flamenco (which of course has its routes in Islamic culture, as does Granada itself) are without a doubt the most stunning works of the exhibition. I was held utterly spellbound by one work depicting Granada in those same umbres and ochres, but with a black and white clustered group of flamenco dancers at its centre, their arms thrust upwards in a burst of energy so reminiscent of that point of duende, their figures perfectly arched into the passionate hold of a flamenco dancer in her final crescendoed cry. Dazzling. Spectacular – one of the best works I have ever seen at Tate. Tragically, I can find no image of this work online, which makes it all the more important that you head along to the show to share in these incredible artworks.

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Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist is on at Tate Modern until 22 September 2013

Saloua Raouda Choucair – Geometric East meets Abstract Expressionist West

I hadn’t heard of Beirut-born artist Saloua Raouda Choucair before I dropped in, unplanned, to a small retrospective of her work at Tate Modern yesterday. In fact, as the literature accompanying the show rather depressingly tells us, “despite ceaselessly producing work for the best part of five decades, Choucair remains relatively little known internationally [and]… has not yet reached her deserved position in art history”. This is undoubtedly the reason then why our paths have not crossed each other before (and, I suppose in part has something to do with the fact that her name does not exactly spring to mind all that easily). Yet the moment I walked into the four room exhibition at Tate, encouraged to do so by the vivid bright colours of her almost fauvist abstract portrait which graces the posters of the show, I was in love.

Choucair poster

I was in love first and foremost with her paintings, largely gouache abstract compositions, with geometric forms criss crossing over each other in a multi layered colour explosion, to her Les Peintres Celebres collection, a wonderful set of group portraits, where the form of the nude has been flattened and abstracted, and the poses reduced to softened linear forms.

Les Peintes Celebres (1948-9) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Les Peintes Celebres (1948-9) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Untitled (1948-9) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Untitled (1948-9) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Paris-Beirut (1948) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Paris-Beirut (1948) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Choucair’s paintings very clearly demonstrate the influential hand of cubist figurative painter Fernand Léger, under whose influence she came in 1940s Paris, and yet as she moves from figure paintings to her abstract composition, you can see equally clear evidence of the extent to which she was inspired by the geometric forms of Islamic art, which had entranced her when she became acquainted with them in Cairo. These “Fractional Modules” as she calls them, were almost certainly my favourite paintings in the show. Simple shapes interwoven and multi-layered resulted in a wonderfully satisfying overall abstract form, an image so complex in its pictorial language (despite the repeated use of a single shape or form) that it reminds me of the same level of aesthetic satisfaction that can be gleaned from those stunning patterned tiles and plaster work in the great Islamic palaces of Southern Spain.

Composition in Blue Module (1947-51) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Composition in Blue Module (1947-51) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Fractional Module (1947-51) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Fractional Module (1947-51) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Rhythmical Composition in Yellow (1952-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Rhythmical Composition in Yellow (1952-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Composition with Arcs (1962-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Composition with Arcs (1962-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

However in addition to the paintings, I also loved Choucair’s sculptures, which became her main preoccupation from the 1950s onwards, and into whose multi-dimensional forms the language of abstract expressionism has translated. Her works often reminded me of British greats Moore and Hepworth, particularly her use of strings strung across her metal sculptures to form rounded ephemeral planes. But I loved in particular her “poem” works – like a pile of bricks but each somehow melting under the tender hands of their mother-sculptor, curving into one another in an organic embrace.

Poem (1963-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Poem (1963-5) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Dual (1978-80) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Dual (1978-80) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

The screw (1975-7) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

The screw (1975-7) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

But perhaps the most powerful piece in the exhibition is  Two=One (1947-51), one of Choucair’s painted compositions which had been hanging in her Beirut flat when a bombing raid rained down on the city during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, resulting in glass from one of her cabinets smashing and piercing the surface of this abstract painting. Thus the painting bears witness not only to that history, but, as Tate puts it, to the “circumstances through which Choucair not only survived, but continued to work with energy and enthusiasm”. Hopefully, with this superb exhibition  hosted at the very heart of the Britain’s art capital, Choucair’s enthusiasm will finally bear fruit as she becomes recognised as an internationally important abstract artist, under whose skilful guise Eastern islamic geometry met with western Expressionism with stunning results.

Two=One (1947-51) (complete with hole at its centre)  © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Two=One (1947-51) (complete with hole at its centre) © Saloua Raouda Choucair Foundation

Soloua Raouda Choucair is on at Tate Modern until 20th October 2013.

 

Lichtenstein Retrospective: Artist or copyist, it’s a spot-acularly good show

Intrinsically linked with the school of Pop Art are a series of almost inevitable questions: Is a work which borrows from a pre-existing image original? Does it even matter? Can a painting of a can of soup, for example, the likes of which can be found on every supermarket shelf around the world, be described as having any artistic merit? And just how much creativity is required in order to call a representation of an object “art”?

No more so are these questions of relevance than when contemplating the work of American pop art supremo, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), whose retrospective has just opened its doors at London’s Tate Modern gallery. Making it big when, in 1961 he imitated a cartoon of Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, by blowing up a single cartoon frame to life-size proportions and recreating it with oil paint on canvas, Lichtenstein shot to fame as the creator of zany bold paintings which almost exclusively borrowed either from comic books, or images of ordinary life (largely advertisement images in newspapers and magazines). Lichtenstein was unapologetic in taking the work of other cartoon illustrators and, with very few changes except for an increase in size and the occasional simplification of colour, recycling the images as his own (and then selling the canvas for equally increased sums).

Lichtenstein's first pop-art image: Look Mickey (1961)

Lichtenstein’s first pop-art image: Look Mickey (1961)

Inspired by adverts - Step-on can with leg (1961)

Inspired by adverts – Step-on can with leg (1961)

Alka Seltzer (1966)

Alka Seltzer (1966)

And yet to describe Lichtenstein’s process in this way is itself a simplification of the facts. For in transferring print images to the realm of oil on canvas, Lichtenstein does something remarkable – he paints the amplified cartoon or advert so perfectly, including the Ben-Day dots (which was a printing process used to create the effect of colour mixing or dilution) and the black outlines, that he manages to remove almost any indication that this is the work of an artist. Contemporary audiences questioned the merit of doing this. In an age when abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock had ruled the art world, the absence of any indication of the artist at work, whether through brush strokes or drips of paint, appeared devoid of emotional tangibility or expression. And yet in a way, wasn’t Lichtenstein just doing what had been done centuries before, by the great artists of Renaissance, Baroque and Napoleonic art for example, who painted so perfectly that not a single brush stroke was ever evident in their finished canvases?

Torpedo

To view Lichtenstein’s work as devoid of expression and artistic wit is to misunderstand his accomplishments as an artist. For even in his early works, which do predominantly borrow from comic strips, we see his humour as an artist choosing, and drawing our attention to, the more absurdly worded or amusing cartoons. In amplifying the macho airmen and apparently helpless, romantic and teary blondes of typical american comic books, Lichtenstein is subtly commenting on the stereotypes of the age, if not challenging them then poking fun at the very formulaic trajectory of a modern commercial society, all buying into the same clichés, and tempted by the same products and advertising.

Whaam (1963)

Whaam (1963)

M-Maybe (1965)

M-Maybe (1965)

We rose up slowly (1964)

We rose up slowly (1964)

Masterpiece (1962)

Masterpiece (1962)

Yet there can be no doubting the trajectory of Lichtenstein’s own career as clearly evidenced by the helpfully chronologically curated exhibition. Having found his niche in a new pop art era, and very much made the world of the commercial image an artistic style all of his very own, with all the lines and Ben-Day dots that entailed, we see Lichtenstein go on to develop that style in a number of different contexts, expanding beyond the comic-book and advert to develop his own individual chapter in art history. As the years move on, we see Lichtenstein adopt the simple linear forms and carefully graduating colours of the art deco style, using his dots and lines adeptly to recreate the look and feel of that modernist era. Perhaps most effectively of all, we then see him use his own style to reimagine the work of great artists, like those artists had in turn done with the work of other artists before them. This was definitely my favourite section of the exhibition, as Lichtenstein used his unique  pop-art style to reinvent works by Picasso, Mondrian and Matisse, to paint his own still-lifes including a brilliant cubism still life, and most technically brilliant of all, to pay homage to Monet’s various depictions of Rouen Cathedral, doing so with Ben-Day dots alone.

Frolic (1977)

Frolic (1977)

Frolic

Cubish still life (1974)

Cubish still life (1974)

Rouen Cathedral (after Monet) (1969)

Rouen Cathedral (after Monet) (1969)

Having tackled art history, Lichtenstein next explores the genre of still-life, as well as depictions of an artist’s studio itself, again something which many artists have done before him. He also paints large scale depictions of rooms, with wonderfully simplified furniture, but always including a number a number of visual clues, generally in the paintings hung in the room, as to a deeper, often more personal tale he is attempting to tell.

Still life with goldfish (1972)

Still life with goldfish (1972)

Artist's Studio "The Dance" (1974)

Artist’s Studio “The Dance” (1974)

Interior with Waterlilies (1991)

Interior with Waterlilies (1991)

Reflections on Interior with a Girl Drawing

Reflections on Interior with a Girl Drawing

However perhaps the cleverest use of his lines and dots is when Lichtenstein goes on to paint mirrors and reflections. In his “reflections series” he paints recreations of old masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, but then fragments the image with a series of dot-created breaks or fissures interrupting the base depiction. These are intended to replicate the effect of light bouncing off an image when it is framed behind glass. In this way, Lichtenstein focuses not on the painting itself, but the direct effect of imagined environment upon that painting in its exhibited and glazed form.

Mirror no.1 (1969)

Mirror no.1 (1969)

He takes this one step further by using dots to replicate the effect of a mirror, with the perhaps obvious irony that while we appear to be looking at a mirror, we see only a blank space rather than a reflection of our face staring back. In this respect Lichtenstein makes further reference to the simplified representation of glass and mirrors in the world of illustration rather than in the world of realistic representation.

Having taken the Ben-Day dot from its use as a printing technique and replicated it on canvas to suggest a process, rather than a painting, Lichtenstein then used those same dots to suggest light, reflection and shadow. Consequently when he returns to the depiction of cartoon-styled idealistic blonde women some 30 years after he first depicted them in his cartoon-strip canvases, Lichtenstein uses the dots not to suggest a printed colour process, but makes the dots the focus of the image in themselves, painting them now across the image, rather than within the various black lines of the figures illustrated, so the dots almost form a superficial overlay across the painting.

Torpedo...LOS! (1963)

Torpedo…LOS! (1963)

Nudes with beach ball (1978)

Nudes with beach ball (1978)

Landscape with Philosopher (1996)

Landscape with Philosopher (1996)

The Ben-Day dot was king in Lichtenstein’s work, right up until the end when, in his final years, he used graduating sizes of dots to create the impression of landscapes following traditional chinese depictions. Brilliantly, and through dots alone, he manages to give the impression of mist, of distance, of light, of water. These aren’t his best works by any means, but show just how far Lichtenstein had expanded upon his truly unique style from one end of his career to the other.

So did it matter that Lichtenstein borrowed from the work of illustrators, from supermarket shelves, from art history, from printing processes? Of course not, for in that respect, how was he any different from generations of artists before him? Rather, in seizing upon the depictions of modern life in the rapidly expanding post-war economy of 1960s America, Lichtenstein helped to made pop-culture an artistic phenomenon, while taking what were the incredibly simple artistic ingredients of black lines and benday dots, and making them his own in a career which was experimental, varied, and quite contrary to popular belief, incredibly expressive.

Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, runs at Tate Modern until 27th May 2013.

All images are the © of the Estate of Roy Lictenstein

Rothko vandalism calls into question the accessibility of Britain’s art

Something about Mark Rothko’s famously monotone canvas, Black on Maroon from the Seagram Murals, looked different when London’s Tate Modern closed its doors yesterday: Sprawled across it’s semi-black surface were the freshly applied words of a savage vandal, a sensational act of vandalism on a painting worth millions, whose fresh drip marks bore a pertinent resemblance to blood – a vicious wound imposed upon this vulnerable and historical canvas. Reading “Vladimir Umanets, A Potential Piece of Yellowism”, this is the work of a blatantly narcissistic probably psychopathic criminal, who believes that he did no wrong. In fact, as he audaciously told the press today, he feels that his attack “adds value” to the priceless Rothko piece.

Yesterday’s vandalism

Of course, in truth, the homeless Russian is yearning for attention, and by writing this article, I am really not intending to give it to him. But what his act of violence does show in the stark light of day is 1) how vulnerable some of our most precious works of art truly are and 2) how lax the security is surrounding them. Considering a similar Rothko piece recently sold for £53.8 million at auction, the potential worth of the now vandalised piece would, if it was a gemstone, be accompanied 24/7 by a troop of armed guards. Yet in most of our galleries, the walls are literally dripping with works of similar or greater value, with only one sleepy security guard to protect a whole room.

The Rothko room at Tate – now closed

But I do not intend to criticise the security efforts of Tate Modern and other galleries like it. Rather, I consider the security provided to be appropriate for the proper appreciation of art, without causing the visitor to feel intimidated, or kept at too far a distance to properly enjoy the work. And herein lies my problem. As more and more attacks such as yesterday’s Rothko outrage continue to occur, the tighter security will become, and the more difficult it will be for us, the art loving public, to enjoy these great works.

I have always loved the way one can wander, uninhibited, into the likes of Tate or the National Gallery and access those wonderful artworks with such ease and with such an intimate proximity. Take, by contrast, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, home to some of the world’s most famous Impressionists works. There you have to queue out in the cold for a good 40 minutes minimum before you can get into the place, such is the stringency of the airport style security required before a visitor can gain access. It’s a horrible hassle, but is this now the future? You don’t hear of this grand acts of vandalism happening at the d’Orsay, nor the Louvre or Orangerie, where other such security measures are implemented.

The slashed Rokeby Venus

By contrast here in London, I have often worried how in the National Gallery, they allow so many tourists to simply wander in, laden with rucksacks and all, baseball caps covering their faces, traipsing around the gallery in such numbers that it must be practically impossible to properly guard the countless priceless masterpieces on show all around them. And this is the place which itself has been the subject of such sensational acts of vandalism before, such as “Slasher Mary”, the suffragette, who in 1914 slashed the naked back of the poor Rokeby Venus by Velazquez, which still bares the scars to this day. Lessons have been far better learnt by the Dutch however, whose The Night Watch by Rembrandt, slashed in 1975, is now heavily guarded, and by the Reina Sofia in Madrid, who now keep Picasso’s Guernica under heavy guard, hoping to prevent a reoccurrence of the horrible defacing inflicted upon it by Tony Shafrazi when, in 1974, he painted “Kill Lies All” in red paint across it.

Rembrandt’s Night Watch, also vandalised in 1975

Red paint across Picasso’s Guernica

Whatever the security, these incidences of senseless, selfish vandalism will undoubtedly continue to occur every so often. But as inevitable as these attacks may be, so too will increase the inevitability that more and more, our most prized works will be locked away, kept behind a safety rope or bullet-proof glass, and visitors made to queue for frustrating lengths of time in order to get anywhere close. And all this just as gallery visits were at their highest figure for years. It seems nothing good can last forever – there will always be some idiot round the corner to ruin it all.

Sunday Supplement: High Perspective (Viewed from 21c)

Having recently been voted the top city to visit in the world (as if we didn’t know it already), after last weekend’s Jubilee spectacular and, of course, with the olympics almost on our doorstep, it seems only appropriate that in this week’s Sunday Supplement, I feature one of my paintings which features the city of London as its central theme.

I moved to London ten years ago this September, when I came to study law at King’s College London. I was thrilled when, full of anticipation at what was to be my first day moving away from home in order to start university, I entered my student digs to find this view before me: a perfect vista over London’s south bank complete with the skyscrapers of the city and the tower of Tate Modern, all framing the iconic “Oxo Tower” at the centre. It was as though this room had been chosen for me as an artist, despite the reason for my studies being the pursuit of law. Over that year, I saw this incredible view change over the seasons, as buildings became blanketed with snow, shrowded in a thick mist, and glimmering with the soft hues of pinky golden sunsets and bright midday sun. At the end of my academic year, when my first year law exams were finally over, I imported a canvas into my room and sat down to paint this representation of my view.

High Perspective (Viewed from 21c) (2003 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, acrylic on canvas)

It’s not a straight forward landscape: far from it. Rather I used symbols to represent various landmarks rather than paint them directly as I saw them. The GMTV tower on the left for example was replaced with the stack of CDs which my friends and I were listening to during that year, this being a pertinent representation because the GMTV studios are where so many entertainment shows are filmed. Similarly I replaced the Tate tower with a tube of paint, and one of the large publishing headquarters with a stack of magazines (and a couple of law books to show willing). A predominant theme running through the work is food. This was inspired by the Oxo tower itself, named after the stock cube which, in the days when London’s south bank was a hive of industrial activity, would no doubt have been manufactured at the site. Since these stock cubes are frequently incorporated in soups and stews and casseroles, I started reinterpreting the London skyline as various vegetable ingredients which could then be added to the dish which is being cooked in the bottom right hand corner of the work. Instead of the golden balls on the corners of one south bank building, golden tomatoes take their place; similarly London spires become carrots and Norman Foster’s famous “gherkin” building is painted as just that. Finally, since I could see where the river was, but couldn’t actually see the water itself (owing to buildings blocking the view), I imported the water into the scene with the aid of a very long hose pipe which spirals through the roof tops and chimneys before finally adding much needed liquid into the saucepan on my windowsill.

The view as it really was back in 2002

And covered in snow…

So there you have it, one of my most prominent London works, and actually one of my most valuable painting sales when it was sold at exhibition in Mayfair in 2008. Not to worry though – if you like the work and wish you had the original brightening up your lounge, there are limited edition prints of the work available on my main art website, here.

Have a great Sunday and come back to The Daily Norm this coming week for a load of food and art-based posts including the unveiling of my newest painting!

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Daily Sketch: Norms at the Damien Hirst Exhibition

It’s all very well a gallery playing host to these rotting cow heads and life cycles of flies with their maggots and detritus and moving little black bodies, but what if the little scientific show-in-action managed to escape from the careful confines of its Damien Hirst supervised glass tank? Even when we visited Hirst’s room full of butterflies at Tate Modern last weekend, we managed to walk out of the room with part of the exhibit attached to our backs (a butterfly landed on my partner… and was swiftly rescued by a Tate attendant before we walked off with potentially one of the most valuable butterflies in the word unknowingly upon our person). So what if those pesky flies managed to escape too? Sadly in Norm world, this question was not just posed in theory alone. All that rotting caused a flap of the tank to come open (or perhaps it was sabotage?!) and for one poor Norm who took the insects’ peculiar fancy, he found himself the number one lunch attraction for a very hungry group of flies.

Norms at Tate Modern (2012 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

And just in case you don’t know which Damien Hirst “artwork” I am talking about, herewith, the offending article… I swear that blood must cause havoc for a gallery’s wooden floors…

Damien Hirst, A Thousand Years (1990)

So let this be a lesson to you all ye who dare to enter Tate Modern’s latest Damien Hirst retrospective. It’s all well enough to stop and stare, but those ghastly flies are but a pane of glass away from a role reversal whereby you become the attraction! Of course while you’re there, be sure to look out for  the Norm in Formaldehyde, which will surely be the highlight of your experience. Here’s a picture of it (one I made earlier).

The Physical Possibility of a Norm in Formaldehyde (after Damien Hirst) (2011 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Damien Hirst at Tate: Repetitive, super-sensationalised science-show which is strangely enjoyable

The blockbuster show of Tate’s annual exhibition calendar, a retrospective to YBA supremo Damien Hirst, has been long anticipated by London’s art scene as well as the purveyors of trashy gossip magazines and followers of The Only Way is Essex alike. And such is the pull of Damien Hirst – this isn’t highbrow fine art, it’s not oil paintings fastidiously executed or sculptures miraculously carved from marble. This is a highly-commercialised , over-exposed fair ground of cut up creatures and stomach-churning curiosities, highly laminated multi-coloured, multi-formed collected lacquered lustre and sparkling, extravagant and utterly pointless bling. And where there is bling, that twinkle to attract the masses, you don’t need to be erudite and sophisticated to pull in the crowds. This is Tate doing household gloss paint, not oil paint.

Damien Hirst, Lullaby, the Seasons (2002) (detail)

Damien Hirst, Arg-Glu (1994)

To give him is due, Mr Hirst is unapologetically tawdry . He doesn’t at least pretend to be the next Caravaggio. He makes art for a modern generation, a generation which consumes weekly updates on Katie Price’s deflating boobs rather than a good Jane Austen, who are only too aware of drug culture, who over use and abuse pharmacies in their hypochondriacal self-obsession, and are ultimately attracted by the latest trend, sensation or sparkle. No wonder Damien Hirst has been successful. He only had to stick diamonds to the fatalistically familiar skull and reproductions started springing up in homewear stores up and down the country. He took polka dots and made them uber-cool. Yet the Spanish have been celebrating the steadfast spot in their flamenco garb for centuries. Commercially clever Damien Hirst surely is. Super-skilled artist? I have my doubts. Yet without the guise and mystique of art to promote him, wouldn’t all of Damien Hirst’s oeuvre fall into a science museum/ interior design shop/ chemist/ butchers/ fishmongers where it belongs?

Damien Hirst, In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies) (1991) (detail)

There weren’t many surprises in the show. Such has been the success of Hirst’s publicity machine that almost every work is almost instantly recognisable.The dot paintings were predictable, and there were an AWFUL lot of them.  The great shark looms menacingly at the centre of the show. Either side of the shark, the sliced-in-half cow and calf, a few other fluffy sheep and birds (all in formaldehyde) are flanked by those repugnant rotting flies. All around the animal detritus, the repetitive spot motif translates into the pharmacy cabinets with row upon row of pill bottles, and then to the pills themselves, painstakingly laid out on shelf upon shelf, while next door you have fish, all laid out in the same direction, apparently “for the purpose of understanding”. Then you move on to the butterflies – the simpler butterfly pictures were a disappointment – the beautiful creatures had been clumsily placed onto thick gloss paint which messily spilled onto their delicate features.

Damien Hirst, Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven (2007)

Much more impressive were the complex butterfly collages which were symmetrically placed to form incredible stained-glass window formations, not to mention the room which was full of live butterflies, their chrysalises forming their own kind of natural art as they attached themselves onto the blank canvases hung on the walls. There too were the “spin paintings” (basically paint chucked onto a fast moving canvas) and then, as though to emphasise the repetitive nature of Hirst’s work, a “bling” version of everything – the pill cabinet replaced with crystals, the coloured spots painted on a gold background, a smaller shark floating in a black tank rather than white, and butterflies stuck onto a gold canvas. There was also a superfluous obsession with cigarettes and ashtrays, used in Hirst’s art to make the oh-so novel point that one day we might die. Clever.

Damien Hirst, Judgement Day (2009)

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)

So it was all rather predictable, and very repetitive, but strangely, and I hate to admit this, enjoyable. The insides of a cow are fascinating, not least when you get to walk in between the two halves of a once unified body. Looking down the huge throat of a shark at close quarters, shivering with horror when faced with its ghastly serrated teeth and menacing empty eyes is a unique experience, and the opportunity to appreciate the startling natural beauty of a multi-coloured catalogue of butterflies was a wonder. So too is it fun to look upon row upon row of multi-coloured pills and reflect on how many beautiful colours exists amongst a group of medicines which appear so mundane when viewed in isolation, or to appreciate the great skill of gravity in making such vivid and striking splashes when paint is spun around a canvas.

One of the spin paintings

However one can’t help but conclude, upon later analysis, that all the things you enjoyed at the exhibition were just   examples of the splendour of nature itself – the beauty of butterflies, the complexity of animal organs, the results of a spinning mechanism whose beauty is owed simply to chance. And yet if we had seen these things in a science museum, would we have given them a second glance? The isolation of the mundane within an artistic context certainly gives the objects the mystique and glamour which makes them deserving of our attention. But it is ironic that so much of what is praised of Damien Hirst’s work is what has simply been left to nature, or to chance.

Damien Hirst, No Feelings (1989)

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God (2007)

I cannot overly bemoan Hirst for creating a show which offers the chance to interact with his work, to engage with nature, and to enjoy thinking about what is, and what is not, art. I was also pleased that Tate did not try to swamp the visitor with overtly complex and inevitably meaningless lectures on what the art is supposed to mean and how it should be interpreted. Rather, on the whole the visitor was left to enjoy the show relatively uninterrupted, although Hirst’s titles are quite often unnecessarily convoluted and embarrassingly pretentious, not to mention barely related to the work titled.  But what really does make me feel uneasy is the knowledge that hardly any of the work on show has been made or created by Hirst himself, that there is no indication of any artistic talent, only of clever ideas.

Damien Hirst, The Anatomy of an Angel, 2008 – but who sculpted it??

As an artist myself, the most enjoyable thing about an exhibition for me is the chance to interact with it, to look at the art works and learn from the techniques, to appreciate the variation in skill and representation. In this exhibition that opportunity to interact with the work was lost. There is only so far you can be captivated by a medicine cabinet or a canvas packed with dead flies. In the latter butterflies gallery for example, where butterflies were used like stained glass windows, there was a sculpture of an angel, partially cut open to reveal the anatomy underneath. The sculpture was at first captivating, but the fact that I did not know who sculpted it, and whose skill I was appreciating really left something missing for me. The fact that most of these works are made my some factory process leaves me dead inside, just as I would be if someone asked me to study supermarket shelves for an hour.

For me, much of what is produced under the “Damien Hirst” brand will never be true art. It may be design, it may be the work of some unknown worker in the Hirst factory, or it may just be well preserved science, but it so often lacks the prerequisite skill to be art. Others will fiercely oppose my view, but that’s the great thing about the creative world. It makes us think, and in that respect alone, Damien Hirst is undoubtedly successful.

Damien Hirst, Sympathy in White Major – Absolution II (2006)

Damien Hirst at Tate Modern, London, is on until 9 September 2012.

The Daily Sketch: Norm gets attacked by a serious case of Kusama Polka dots

Is it just me, or is this Norm, and his lounge, and the view through his window, and all of his possessions covered with spots? Norm is thinking the same, hence the general look of concern on his face as he falls victim to a hideous case of the dreaded Kusama Polka dot disease. It spreads fast and wild, and is super contagious, or it was at least in the mind of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, whose work is currently the subject of a solo retrospective at Tate Modern (as reviewed in my post, yesterday). Relentless were the dots which covered Kusama’s world, and persistent too are the little spotty blighters as they invade the home of Norm. I’d seek to comfort him with the promise of an antidote for this contagion. The problem is, Kusama’s work doesn’t show any signs of becoming spot free, ergo Norm may need to get used to his new look. At least the new Kusama Louis Vuitton collection will fit in well…

A serious case of Kusama Polka-dots (2012, © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2005-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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