Thursday, 28 December 2017

Emily Carr

I have just finished reading The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland which is a fictionalised account of the life of Emily Carr. Inspired by the First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, she was one of the first painters in Canada to adopt a Modernist and Post-Impressionist style. As she matured, the subject matter of her painting shifted from indigenous themes to landscapes, and forest scenes in particular. She did not receive widespread recognition for her work until late in her life. Carr was also a writer and one of the earliest chroniclers of life in British Columbia.

Fiercely independent and an adventurer, and despite the very real dangers and difficulties of a woman traveling alone into the wilderness, Carr pursued her passion to express in her art a pure British Columbia, including its native settlements and totem sculptures. She was driven to go to hostile villages in the hope of seeing pure indigenous art and celebrating it in her paintings.

After years of art school in England and San Francisco Carr returned to Canada, the place of her birth. She began to paint the land and scenes of indigenous culture and in the process, found herself connecting ever more deeply with its people. She stayed in a village near Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, home to the Nuu-chah-nulth people. Her interest in indigenous life was reinforced by a trip to Alaska nine years later.

Determined to further her knowledge of new artistic trends she travelled to Paris in search if 'modern art' and was awestruck by the breaking of boundaries by the then new painters, such as Matisse and Picasso. There, she was encouraged to use non-naturalistic colours influenced by the example of the Fauve painters and this brought new freshness and vigour to Carr's handling of paint. She stayed in Paris for a year and then returned to British Columbia with a new way of seeing, and started using colour with more determination than ever in order to break her own new ground.

She went on a six-week journey that took her far north, both inland and out to the Queen Charlotte Islands. The primary goal of her work was to document the villages and totems of First Nations people, which Carr believed were destined to disappear. She executed enough studies and finished paintings to hold a one-person exhibition of 200 works in Indian motifs, the first show of its kind in Vancouver.  Not surprisingly, unused to indigenous themes, the public ridiculed her efforts, and she was cast into a state of depression, loneliness and near poverty.

During the next 15 years, she did little painting but instead run a boarding house.

Over time her work came to the attention of several influential and supportive people including Marius Barbeau, a prominent ethnologist at the National Museum in Ottawa. She was invited to exhibit her work at the National Gallery as part of an exhibition on West Coast indigenous art. Recognition of her work steadily grew and her work was exhibited in London, Paris, Washington DC and Amsterdam.

Distrusting institutional religion she became influenced by Theosophic thought and began to form a new vision of God as nature. She continued painting until she got ill and then, unable to travel, she switched to writing.

Note: The text in italics is copied from The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland.

Wood Interior, 1909

Skidegate, 1912

... 'Potlatches, grandes fetes lasting days. One chief invites other villages to witness the raising of a pole. He gives away hundreds of things. Dried salmon. Hudson's Bay blankets, basins, tools, English dishes. Cloth, oil, sacks of grain, sugar. Even sometimes a sewing machine or a canoe... There are proud speeches, feasting and drinking and drumming. Feathered bodies dancing, stepping lightly on the earth. Moving in a trance... Wild things happen... 

Totem Poles, Kitseukla, 1912

'... Trunks of cedars carved into animals to represent their clan... or to tell history... Imagine them stripped of branches all the way to the top. Creatures with eyes and beaks and teeth and wings stacked on top of each other staring at you out of the forest...Some of the villages have been abandoned but the poles are still there. You can come upon them suddenly or you can hear the wind moaning - whooh, whooh - like a ghost, and then you know there's one nearby, and so you creep around like a fox.

- I want to see them.

- Not possible, not for a woman alone'.

Skidgate, 1912

' - I went to Hitats'uu alone... For a whole week. I loved it. 

- What's to love in a mean little row of bighouses?

- The whole place. And the people. They are what they are. No pretending. I loved how they all live together. How they make what they need. Fine things. Cedar mats, baskets, hammocks... Everything is full of feeling... They live by tradition and harmony with nature too'.

The Crying Totem, 1928

'On the Eagle clan side of Tanu she found Crying Totem. His strong, prominent nose, and his lips only a straight groove conveyed great dignity. It was the eyes that were startling. Eyeballs hung down to his waist on wooden sinews stretched .... No, they weren't sinews, but rivers of tears pouring out his closed eye sockets. 

This Tanu father cried with wrenching formality for his hapless sons. Whatever it meant to the Haida, to her, this Eagle father who cried for the smallpox dead at Raven House in Chumshewa. He cied for the Tsimshian dead of measles in the Skeena. He cried for every father's son sent to war. He cried for Sophie's children. He cried for Haaydzis and Muldo and Tuuns, some Gitksan father's sons, for Harold, and for all the beaten, disfigured, lost. His tears shut no one out.

A heaviness descended on Emily as she began to paint the weeping figure. His streaming tears bleached blue-gray as death, with an advancing army of dark, coned trees in the background, backlit by portentous clouds pressing down to earth, weighted with tears yet unshed - all of it seemed an omen...'

Queen Charlotte Islands Totem, 1028

' - So tell me. Your mission.

- To preserve the totem poles in painting. That art is vanishing. In another generation, it might, all be gone. There needs to be a record of them, in their own village settings, before they rot back into the forest, or before the missionaries burn them down in some righteous Christian frenzy'.

Totem Mother, 1928

'...A man or woman, possibly a mother. The broad face had a shoulder-to-shoulder smile, the mouth not turned up, just stretched wide. The mother, if it was a mother, held a child facing forward, showing him with pride. The baby's face had the same wide smile, as though feeling the love that surrounded him. 

To render motherhood in wood, the carver had exaggerated the mouth, the source of lullaby and love, into a smile that pushed up the cheeks above it. In reality a smile couldn't stretch the width of a face, but the exaggeration dramatized the figure's joy. The hands resting lightly on top of the child's head and cupping him from below were out of proportion, smaller than the width of her smile, as if to suggest gentleness. All that she'd seen in France was here in Kitwanood. Distortion for expression - she'd almost lost sight of it.

Think of everything as shapes, she told herself. The heads of mother and child were squarish, the mother's mouth a round-ended rectangle, her thighs elongated ovals. Now make those shapes express something personal. She thought of Sophie's smile when she presented her twins. Such a smile could illumine a house, could turn a world. She stretched the smile even wider. She enlarged the mother's right shoulder and left forearm, made them clubshaped and strong to enclose the child. She wasn't an anthropologist. She was an artist'.

The Raven, 1928-29

Three Totems, 1929-30

'[Why I'm doing them...] Once I thought it was to make a record. Now I think it's to be close to some spirit I don't understand - yet. To honour the people who do. And to express my love for the West.'

Zunoqua, 1930

Silhouette No. 2, 1930-31

Forest, 1931-33

Forest, British Columbia, 1931-32

Big Raven, 1931

Zunoque of the Cat Village, 1931

Red Cedar, 1931

'Partly lost to her surroundings, she singled out a cedar, wide at the base, narrowing as it grew. If there was any kind of portrait worth doing, it would be the portrait of a tree. But a portrait had to convey character. The channels in this cedar's raw umber trunk all stretched upward, reaching toward light. It was more than a tree, however noble. It was the manifestation of the attitude that had brought her this far: reaching. Not just the tree, but the idea was her subject. The things in a painting were only bits of visible evidence of a still, small voice, whispering the truth.

As she began to paint, she saw rhythm in the tree's repeated forms, in the upward reach of the trunk furrows, its bare hanging withes reaching down, its laden boughs tangled with those of other trees. In one sweep she united the branches into a mantle of cedars. Her swinging arm became a swoop of greenery, boughs from adjacent trees breathing into each other, supporting each other, all one.'

Wood Interior, 1932-35

Pemberton Meadows, 1933

A Rushing Sea of Undergrowth, 1935

Forsaken, 1937

Above the Trees, 1939

Untitled, 1938-39

Cedar, 1942

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Not everyone will be taken into the future, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Not Everyone Will Be Taken Into the Future,

at Tate Modern.

This exhibition was delightful and great fun. Unfortunately, my photographs do not do it justice - some of the galleries were dark, and the existing light not conducive to photographs.

The Kabakovs are widely known as pioneers of installation art. They began their artistic partnership in the late 1980s and have produced a prolific output of immersive installations and other conceptual works addressing ideas of utopia, dreams and fear, to reflect on the universal human condition. Furthermore, their work tells the dark history of Russia since the 1917 revolution.

Artists in the Soviet Union were obliged to follow the officially approved style, Socialist Realism. Wanting to retain his independence, Ilya supported himself as a children's book illustrator from 1955 to 1987, while continuing to make his own paintings and drawings.  His early works explore the possibility of drawing and painting as conceptual media. Having chosen not to be a state-approved fine artist, he worked clandestinely. Sourcing materials was a challenge and many of his early paintings are rendered on plywood, or Masonite, a type of hardboard. The use of these cheap materials emphasises ideas rather than craftsmanship, and sets Ilya's art firmly apart from the official Soviet artists.

Emilia Lekach trained as a classical pianist in Irkutsk and studied Spanish language and literature in Moscow before emigrating to the USA in 1973. In 1988 she met Ilya in New York and this is when they began their artistic partnership. They were married in 1992.

Ilya Kabakov, Head with a Balloon, 1965.

Ilya Kabakov, Hand and Ruisdael's Reproduction, 1965

This puzzling combination of visual elements encourages the viewer to consider different ways of looking, whether rooted in Dutch landscape painting, abstraction or surrealist assemblage. It includes a visual pun, as 'to attach one's hand' is a colloquial Russian expression meaning to add one's signature. The composition can also be seen as a window looking onto a real world, represented by the Ruysdael landscape, with the viewer's arm leaning on the windowsill.

Ilya Kabakov, Soccer Player, 1964

Soccer Player is Ilya's first conceptual painting. Within the outline of a striding figure is the partial view of a rural landscape scene. Alongside it, distorted Cyrillic lettering spells out 'Uglich' - an ancient town in the West of Russia that forms part of the 'golden ring' of historic cities surrounding Moscow. This apparently innocuous image may represent something more sinister, as Uglich was also the location of a number of Gulag prison camps.

Ilya Kabakov, Holiday

The Holiday series is presented as the work of a fictional Socialist Realist artist. According to this story, the original commission for the painting was cancelled and they were put into storage. The fictional artist rediscovered them and decided to reinvigorate them by adding sweet wrappers - an upgrade that fails to improve upon the prosaic images beneath. The work comments on how the criteria of what makes for 'good' art is politically charged and subject to change, but also draws attention to the fate of artists who fall out of institutional favour.

Ilya Kabakov, Holiday

Socialist Realism is ironically questioned in Ilya's paintings. 'We wanted to analyse the language of Soviet civilisation, the banal everyday language of the system. We felt like observers in our own country, like ethnologists... but were also part of that life'.


Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment, 1985

This is Ilya's first whole room, or 'total'  installation. We were able to peep through the broken door in the photograph, into a tiny apartment.

A carefully choreographed staging of objects, lighting and text. It presents a fictional narrative that takes place in the confines of a communal apartment - a form of domestic residence that emerged during the Soviet Union to deal with the shortage of housing in urban areas. Multiple households were forced to share the same cooking and washing facilities in often cramped conditions. For Ilya, the Soviet Communal apartment is emblematic of the way in which the individual is exhibited and exposed to the gaze of others. The title character of the installation finds a way to escape from this oppressive, everyday reality by launching himself into space by catapult.

The next two installations also take place in the confines of a communal apartment.

When Olga Nicolaevna came to the kitchen in the morning she saw in the corridor numerous pots, pans, and plates, which were flying in the air. 

When Olga Yakovlevna went out to get water in the morning, she saw a lot of pots, flying pans and mugs freely fluttering about like birds in the still dark space of the communal corridor, and a few little white people were standing quietly on the brand new flying pot which belong to Igor Subordin from the corner room.

Trousers in the Corner, 1989

I Catch the Little White Men, 1990

The sculptural installations Trousers in the Corner and I Catch the Little White Men both feature minuscule paper cut-out figures. According to Ilya 'these little white men' are inhabitants of a parallel world who can occasionally be glimpsed by human eyes. The tiny figures are just one example of the subversions of perspective and scale that appear throughout the Kabakov's work, perhaps reflecting the ways in which individuals are elevated and forgotten in historical records.

looking closer

model for Where is Our Place? 2002/2017

Where is Our Place? imagines two exhibitions occurring simultaneously within a single art gallery. Old master oil paintings in thick gilt frames can only be partially seen as they ascend into the ceiling. Meanwhile, a display of contemporary works is shown at eye level. There are also two types of viewers - giants and subterranean beings, whose world is just about visible through windows in the floorboards at the edges of the gallery. This reflection on old and new art is also a play on perspective, emphasising that everything appears relative to one's position in the world.

This installation also draws upon the idea of the museum as a site of cultural authority, shaping our understanding of history, art, and society as a whole.

model for The Vertical Opera, 1998/2008

This is the proposed setting for an ambitious opera on the history of Soviet Russia. The Kabakov's concept utilises the vertical space of the structure, which the audience observes from the balconies. Enclosed within architect Frank Lloyd Wright's modernist vision, each level of the rotunda stands for a different chapter in this musical opera: Ante-Revolution, Revolution, Soviet Times, Perestroika and Post-Perestroika.



Three Nights, 1989

The limits of perception are explored in Three Nights. The three large paintings all relate to the theme of night, whether it be a starry sky or a nocturnal insect. However, they are placed behind a large screen, allowing only a partial view of each work. We had to look through monoculars which are directed at small apertures through which magnified images of little white men can be seen.

 Not Everyone Will Be Taken into the Future, 2001

This was the title of a 1983 essay about Kazimir Malevich which Ilya wrote in 1983. He imagines Malevich as a charismatic visionary, leading his people upwards into the future. He then remembers his art school where the most deserving pupils were selected to go to the Young Pioneer camp, while the rest were left behind. Ilya reflects that some artists will go forward and become part of the history of art, but many others will be forgotten.

In this installation of an eerie underground station,  produced by Ilya and Emilia, a train is already leaving the platform, carrying all of those selected to be part of the future. Discarded canvases bring to mind all of the artists abandoned to obscurity, whether they have fallen out of favour with a political regime or simply become unfashionable. As the art world is so focused on keeping up with the present moment, the Kabakovs ask: 'What will happen to these works tomorrow?'

Under the Snow, 2004

Fragmentary images of parades and heroic soldiers are visible among swathes of white suggesting a historical past buried beneath the blank surface of the present day.

A dark entrance leads to an endless corridor in the form of a maze

Labyrinth (My Mother's Album), 1990

one of Ilya's few directly autobiographical installations. Resembling the d├ęcor of a communal apartment building, the walls are lined with

photographs taken by Ilya's uncle, and a memoir by his mother. The text recounts her struggle to survive and bring p a son during the Soviet era. 

The corridors curve in a double spiral, fist leading into the centre, then winding out again.

As we approached the centre, an audio recording of Ilya himself could be heard, singing romantic songs half-remembered from his childhood.

'When I think about that world in which my mother's life passed, what arises in my imagination is a long and semi-dark corridor which is twisted like a labyrinth, where behind each new turn, behind each bend, there is not a bright exit glimmering in the distance, but just the same grubby floor, the same grey, dusty, poorly painted walls illuminated by weak, 40-watt light bulbs'.

Model for Inscriptions on the Wall (Reichstag), 1998/2000

In 1945 Soviet soldiers seized the Reichstag, the former German parliament building. They covered the walls with Cyrillic markings, writing their names, their hometowns, expressions of their hopes and feelings, and their hatred for fascism. More than 50 years later, several artists were invited to propose an artistic intervention in the Reichstag. The Kabakov's unrealised plan was to frame and light some of the surviving inscriptions to memorialise those minor players in the historical narrative and bring into view markings that would otherwise remain invisible.

Man Climbing Over the Wall.
Model for a sculpture (The Eternal Emigrant), 1995/2004

Model for How to Meet an Angel, 1998/2002



In this last room of the exhibition, the theme of flight appears associated with the possibility of escape - whether from the oppression of the Soviet Union, or more generally from the harsh reality of life. Flight takes the form of an angel, a stateless being that is free from earthly and bureaucratic constraints.

How Can one Change Oneself? 1998

Model for The Three Angels, 2012


How to Meet an Angel, #2, 1997, 2014

The Angel Over the City, 1998

Model for The Five Steps of Life, 2000.2012

looking closer