Saturday 30 March 2024

Art of the 21st century at Tate Britain

Art of the 21st century at Tate Britain - The State We're in Now.

The works in this post were made in the last decade, during a time of a succession of crises, ruptures and social justice movements in Britain and the world. These include the Brexit referendum, the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, the election of Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, the #Metoo movement, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Life today is increasingly shaped by the influence of digital technology, social media and the rise of AI. We continue to struggle with the planet-wide impact of the climate emergency.

Some of the artworks in this post allude to these critical events while others open up spaces for broader reflections concerning community, difference and autonomy.

Lubaina Himid, H.M.S. Calcutta, 2021, (acrylic and charcoal on canvas)

Himid reimagines a historic work in the Tate's collection - James Tissot's The Gallery of the MHS Calcutta painted about 1876. In the original Tissot depicts three white figures: a naval officer flirting with a young woman, with another woman standing between them. Himid reworks the painting to focus on two black women instead. They appear deep in thought as they gaze out to sea.

Wolfgang Tillmans, The State We're In, 2015.

This photograph captures a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean from the end of a pier in Porto, Portugal. The sea is dark, its surface agitated. This, combined with the imposing scale of the work, gives the work a feeling of foreboding. The title is a reference to global political tensions. It speaks to Brexit, the migration crisis, and the rising global sea levels caused by the climate emergency. 

Oscar Murillo, Manifestation, 2019-2020, (oil, oil stick, cotton thread, and graphite on danvas, velvet and linen)

Murillo made this painting during lockdown. The title refers to a process of becoming, and to the world's association with protest or demonstration in several languages. He flooded the surface of the canvas with oil paint and pigment, as an exploration of 'mark-making in its purest form'. Its thick marks and vibrant colours suggest turmoil and unrest. Instead of using paint to create an illusion, Murillo is interested in using paint as a 'factual thing, almost as a material and physical tool'.

Partou Zia, 40 Nights and 40 Days, 2008, (oil on canvas)

A self-portrait. The work's title alludes to geligious tales of isolation and endurance, such as the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent fasting alone in the desert. Zia painted this work in the last few months before she died. A hand reaches down from the top right corner, perhaps guiding her into the next life.

Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, 2021, (oil, acrylic, oil stick and silkscreen on canvas)

A self-portrait and a 'visual letter to the self'. Drawing on images from the internet and personal family archives, Hwami uses collage to explore identity in the post-digital age. 'I think I am seeking freedom', she says. 'Collage making, which is a process I use to create a picture, has given me absolute freedom as a strategy to overcome dis-ease. There are moments within history and our current time which are inescapable, and I think I want to give myself a moment to escape'.

Thursday 28 March 2024

End of 20th century art, 1900-2000

End of century art, 1900-2000 at Tate Britain.

Media, money and celebrity transformed the landscape of British art. Provocative young artists took central stage, while others contemplated cross-cultural identities.

After the political and social conflicts of the 1980s, Britain in the 1990s entered a period of apparently progressive optimism. Tony Blair's New Labout government increased funding for the arts and provided free admission to public museums. Young artists, musicians and designers enjoyed increased attention and celebrity. New Labour traded on this combination of art, music, celebrity and media in a moment known as 'Cool Britannia'.

A group of young artists made ambitious artworks and staged their own exhibitions in empty East London warehouses while still at art college. They were entrepreneurial and provocative, not waiting to be invited by established art galleries and museums. They became known as the Young British Artists (YBAs). Artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin gained celebrity and notoriety in equal measure as money began pouring into the scene. Their work often engaged with experiences of class and gender in Britain as well as existential feelings.

While the media fixated on the YBAs, artists as various as Mona Hatoum, Peter Doig and Chris Ofili developed practices that were more lyrical and reflective in sensibility. They reinvented painting, drawing or photography and experimented conceptually with less familiar materials and methods. They brought a multitude of cultural perspectives - transnational, post-colonial, queer - to Britain's increasingly globally connected art scene.

RB Kitaj, The Wedding, 1989-93, (oil on canvas)

Mona Hatoum, Present Tense, 1996, (soap and glass beads)

This olive oil soap is a traditional Palestinian product which has been produced since the 10th century in Nablus, a town north of Jerusalem. Hatoum drew on the soap blocks by pushing tiny red glass beads into their surface. The drawing depicts the map of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord between Israel and Palestine, with the beads outlining the territories to be handed back to the Palestinian authority. Hatoum highlights the fleeting impermanence of official borders, in contrast to the lasting history of the Palestinian people.

Peter Doig, Echo Lake, 1998, (oil on canvas)

Echo Lake is one of several paintings by Peter Doig based on a still from the horror film Friday the 13th. The night-time scene is uneasy, illuminated by a soft band of colour. A US-style police car is parked askew, its headlamps on. The detective figure and his reflection cut into the shoreline of the lake. His hands cup his blurred eyes and mouth calling towards the centre of the lake, or to us looking at the painting. The title suggests that nothing responds but an echo.

looking closer

Lucian Freud, Leigh Bowery, 1991, (oil on canvas)

In this intimate portrait Bowery is naked and vulnerable, towards the end of his life. Bowery said of Freud: 'I love the psychological aspect of his work... His work is full of tension. Like me he is interested in the underbelly of things'.

Sutapa Biswas, To Touch Stone, 1989-90, (graphite on paper)

This image of the artist's sister is both formed and unformed, with some elements of the body existing only in outline. The ground she rests on is a flowing ribbon of words. The shift in techniques and the blank sheets of paper create a tension between emergence and absence. For Biswas, this work represents the desire both to 'sustain visibility/presence' and to be 'taken out of the race/gender/class binaries'. And through this, 'to recover a sense of being and a resistance to our erasure across time and space'.

Chris Ofili, No Woman, No Cry, 1998, (oil, acrylic, graphite, polyester resin, printed paper, glitter, map pins - elephant dung on canvas)

This is Ofili's tribute to the London teenager Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered in a racially motivated attack by a white gang in 1993. It depicts Lawrence's mother Doreen. In each of her tears is her son's face. In the initial murder investigation, the suspects were not convicted. Doreen Lawrence campaigned for a public inquiry. It concluded that the Metropolitan olice force was institutionally racist. Ofili saw the painting as a universal portrayal of grief. He titled it after the song by Bob Marley.

Damien Hirst, Away from the Flock, 1994, (glass stainless steel, perspex, acrylic paint, lamb + formaldehyde solution)

Sarah Lucas, Pauline Bunny, 1997, (wooden chair, vinyl seat, tights, kapok, metal wire, stockings and metal clamp)

'Bunny girl' waitresses worked in Playboy 'gentlemen's clubs'. Their uniform often featured stockings and rabbit ears.  Lucas' version undermines any sense of glamour, challenging the sexual objectification of women by taking it to absurd extremes. Pauline Bunny was originally exhibited with seven similar figurative sculptures, arranged around a snooker table. Their dangling limbs suggested powerless femininity, while the snooker table stood for masculine demonstrations of skill. Lucas titled the 1997 exhibition 'Bunny Gets Snookered'.

Gillian Wearing, I'm Desperate, 1992-93, (photograph, colour, chromogenic pring on paper)

Wearing has described her working method as 'editing life'. I'm Desperate is from a series in which she asked passers-by to write down their thoughts. She titled the series, Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say. She challenges social stereotypes. She said, 'A great deal of my work is about questioning handed-down truths'.

Rachel Whiteread, Torso, 1988, (plaster)

Torso was cast from the inside of a hot water bottle. It encapsulates interests that would define her career over the next 30 years. These include the process of casting forgotten space, an experimental use of materials and the emorional power of everyday objects.

Monday 25 March 2024

Art, 1980-1990, at Tate Britain

Art, 1980-1900, There is no Such Thing as Society, at Tate Britain.

Against a backdrop of economic and social transformation, artists in the 1980s explored their experience of the land and the body to reflect on their own identities and sense of belonging.

Thatcher's premiership spanned and defined much of Britain in that decade. Her government cut public spending, privatised nationalised industries and challenged the power of unions. In 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers held a year-long strike. Meanwhile, after the 'Big Bang' of financial deregulation, the wealth of the City of London's financial sector increased. The Northern Ireland conflict, known as the Troubles, continued. Young black people across England clashed with law enforcement against racial discrimination and police brutality. In 1986, as the AIDS epidemic ripped through gay communities, the British government prohibited local authorities from promoting gay rights.

Many of the artists in this section made work reflecting on life in Britain. Artists reframed their familiar ideas to express a combination of hope and frustration. Britain was viewed from the North of England, suburban gardens, the streets of Brixton in South London and the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. Other artists focused on the body to explore the boundaries between private and public social space. Some reflected on the experience of illness and death. Others made work about gender identity, sexuality or racial violence, using their personal experiences of being Othered or excluded.

Anthony Gormley, Three Ways: Mould, Hole and Passage, 1981-82, (lead and plaster)

Gormley made these sculptures using moulds of his own body. They have holes at the mouth, anus and penis respectively. The holes break the surface of the lead and give access to the dark interior, suggesting possible interactions between outside world and inner space. A direct impression of the artist's body is held within a plaster shell which he has insulated with lead, evoking metaphors of alchemy and transformation. These works sparked Gormley's ongoing treatment of the body as a place: the location of human existence.

Tony Cragg, Britain Seen from the North, 1981, (plastic, wood, rubber, paper and other materials)

Cragg used scrap metal and discarded objects to create these shapes.  The work surveys a Britain broken physically and metaphorically. The figure is a stencil of Cragg's own body.At the time, Cragg was particularly outraged by the lavish wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. This took place during a cost of living crisis that disproportionately affected northern areas of Britain. Cragg wanted to protest 'the superficial, hysterical enthusiasm generated by such an irrelevant event'.

looking closer

Sonia Boyce, From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born 'Native' Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction, 1987, (photographs, black and white, on paper, photocopies on paper, acrylic paint, ballpoint pen, crayon and felt-tip pen)

Sonia Boyce places photographic self-portraits alongside images of derogatory black characters from the children's books and comics she grew up with. She is interested in exploring how identities are constructed and influenced by popular culture. References to Tarzan and Rambo - both white characters known for their strength - draw attention to the power held by mass media to perpetuate these stereotypes.

Derek Jarman, The Clause, 1988, (acrylic paint, glass, plastic, brass bullet casings, resin, steel nails and string on canvas)

A classical Greek torso is tormented by two plastic superheroes. These toys symbolise Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet. Jarman held them responsible for homophobic public policies, including a slow response to the AIDS epidemic. The title refers to Clause 28, enacted in May 1988. This stated that local authorities 'shall not intentionally promote homosexuality', for instance throuth teaching. Jarman campaigned for gay rights. He was one of the first British public figures to speak openly about his HIV diagnosis.

Mona Hatoum, Performance Still, 1985, (photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, mounted on aluminium)

Performance Still documents a work Mona Hatoum performed in 1985 in Brixton, London. She walked barefoot through the streets, dragging Doc Marten boots tied to her ankles. At the time, the boots were recognisable as the go-to footwear of police officers and fascist National Front members. Born to Palestinian exiles in Lebanon, Hatoum was stranded in London in 1975 when the Lebanese Civil War broke out, and felt solidarity with Brixton's black community. For Hatoum, the work was personal, but also had an immediate relevance to the people it was addressing.

Rita Donagh, Long Meadow, 1982, (oil on canvas)

From the 1980s the sectarian conflict occuring in Northern Ireland (known as The Troubles) became a major theme in Donagh's work. The Maze prison in County Antrim was formerly known as Long Kesh or Long Meadow. Prisoners were housed there in H-Blocks, named for their H-shaped plan. These were the site of escalating political protests. In 1981, the year before Donagh painted the work, ten prisoners, including prominent IRA member Bobby Sands starved themselves to death during a mass hunger strike in the prison.

Saturday 23 March 2024

Art, 1960-1970 at Tate Britain

In Full Colour, Art, 1960-1970 at Tate Britain.

Social changes, popular media and a new spirit of optimism inspired artists to embrace vibrant, colour-saturated imagery.

In the 1960s, the UK entered a period of relative prosperity, low unemployment and social mobility. Young men were freed from compulsory military service. The contraceptive pill gave women more control over their bodies. The Sexual Offences Art 1967 partially decriminalised gay relationships. The 1965 Race Relations Act prohibited discrimination on racial grounds. Britain became increasingly multicultural, despite immigration laws restricting the entry of Commonwealth citizens.

Colour began to saturate everyday life. New films, music and television, often celebrating North American culture, captivated the nation. This lead to an explosion of popular youth culture led by British pop and rock stars. The hopes and struggles of the time found new expression in a new, bold visual culture of glossy magazines, colour televisions and advertising. Pop art celebrated and reflected on this new consumerism.

The colourful abstract paintings from the USA profoundly influenced some British artists. However, the richness of the 1960s British art is indebted to a broader range of lived experiences and cultural influences. London and its art schools played a crucial role in this development. State support enabled working-class artists from outside the capital to study and pursue their careers. Artists also arrived in London from other European countries, British colonies and newly independent nations.

Anwar Jalal Shemza, Composition in Red and Green, Squares and Circles, 1963

Pauline Boty, The Only Blonde in the World, 1963, (oil on canvas)

Boty painted Marilyn Monroe from a photograph. The actor occupies a thin strip of this canvas, squeezed between green sections. Monroe had died a year earlier. Boty spoke about her 'nostalgia for the things that are now... it's almost like painting mythology, only a present-day mythology'. She identified with the challenges Monroe had faced.  Boty wanted to be taken seriously intellectually and be free to embody her sexuality at a time when the two were seen as mutually exclusive.

To see more of Boty's work go here

David Hockney, A Bigger Splasy, 1967, (acrylic on canvas)

'When you photograph a splasy, you're freezing a moment and it becomes something else. I realise that a splash could never be seen this way in real life, it happens too quickly. And I was amused by this, so I painted it in a very, very slow way'.

Richard Smith, Gift Wrap, 1963, (oil on canvas)

The size and the landscape orientation of Gift Wrap suggest a billboard. At the time Smith was fascinated with product packaging and advertising. Above all, he was interested in creating illusions in painting, giving the work a three-dimensional, sculptural quality. The composition combines abstract and pop art elements.

Paula Rego, The Firemen of Alijo, 1966, (acrylic, oil pastel, charcoal, graphite, resin, ink, paper and aluminium foil on canvas)

Rego used her own expressive drawings to create this richly layered collage. The technique gave her the freedom to explore themes of moral, social and political revolt. Her focus was the Portuguese dictatorship and the suffering it caused. Living in London, Rego reflected on the hardships people were experiencing under the oppressive regine in her home country. This painting stems from a memory the artist had of volunteer firemen, barefoot and huddled against the cold in a small town in northern Portugal.

looking closer

Derek Boshier, The Identi-Kit Man, 1962, (oil on canvas)

The man in this painting seems to be part toothpaste, part jigsaw piece. The figure merges into mass consumer product reflecting the commodification Derek Boshier throught was transforming society. He was also interested in the effects of Americanisation on British life.The work's title references police identikits. Invented in the USA, these sets of pre-drawn facial features helped investigators create images of suspects. Boshier said the figure in the painting 'represents me (us), the spectator, participant, player, or cog in the wheel - the amorphous 'us' ... being manipulated'.

Sandra Blow, Green and White, 1969, (acrylic, ash and charcoal on canvas)

Bridget Riley, Fall, 1963, (polyvinyl acetate on hardboard)

In 1960 Riley started exploring the visual sensation of looking. She investigated the dynamic potential of optical effects. This would become known as Op Art. Riley mostly worked with the contrast of black and white, occasionally introducing different tones of grey. In Fall, she repeated a single curving line to create varying optical frequencies. She said of this work: 'I try to organise a field of visual energy which accumulates until it reaches maximum tension'.


Wednesday 20 March 2024

Neo-Impressionism in the Colours of the Mediterranean - part 2

Neo-Impressionism in the colours of the Mediterranean at the Goulandris Foundation, Athens.

This is the second post on  this exhibition - I have used the same introduction as in post 1 which you can find

Neo-Impressionism, or Divisionism, also called chromoluminarism, is the characteristic style of painting defined by the separation of colours into individual dots or patches that interact optically. This exhibition is dedicated to the Mediterranean years of the Neo-Impressionists. It follows the artistic development of Signac, Cross, Luce and Van Rysselberghe towards a freer and bolder style of painting. The palette of these artists, enamoured of pure colours, continually gains in vigour and vicaciousness. As such, it illustrates in the most elegant way possible the words of authors who had ventured before the painters into this little-frequented Mediterranean coastline: Guy de Maupassant, Stendhal, Theodore de Banville. Initially prized by people suffering from poor mental health, the Mediterranean climate attracts increasingly greater numbers of art lovers who are enticed by a genre of painting that is from  that time on solidly rooted in the sensory and the subjective.

Signac and Cross remain faithful to the Neo-Impressionist technique to the end of their days, but Luce and Van Rysselberghe will gradually distance themselves. Newcomers like Matisse, Manguin will experiment with the divided brushstroke quite diligently, with an independent spirit that anticipates the artistic revolutions to come.

On March 29, 1891, Georges Seurat dies unexpectedly at the age of 31. The death of the founder of Neo-Impressionism leaves the other members of the group - in particular, Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Maximilien Luce and Theo Van Rysselberghe - at a loss. Many critics and painter friends, including Camille Pissarro, foresee an imminent end to the artistic movement which they misinterpret as nothing more than a transient rebellious offshoot of Impressionism.

However, Seurat's death marks only the closing of the first chapter of Neo-Impressionism.  A second chapter will soon unfold, far from Paris, on the shore of the Mediterranean. And, Signac, now the leader of the group, takes it towards new horizons, both geographic and artistic.

2. Liberating Colour.

Under the alternately soothing and fierce Mediterranean sun, Signac, Van Rysselberghe, Cross and Luce intensify their pictorial explorations, as such orientating Neo Impressionism towards a more colourful and contrasting painting. The dot enlarges and, in some cases, becomes a mosaic tessera and moves more freely. Cross and Luce are quick to transpose their advance to the human figure, creating in this way allegorical scenes that soon fascinate many a young artist, Matisse included.

We are indebted to Signac for the most eloquent tributes to the endlessly renewed appeal of the south that will thus become the ideal locale for future avant-garde movements. This same period is also marked by Luce and Van Rysselberghe's gradual distancing from Divisionism.

Maximilien Luce, Bathers at Saint-Tropez, 1897, (oil on canvas)

Henri-Edmond Cross, After Bathing, 1907-08, (oil on canvas)

Henri-Edmond Cross, The Shipwreck, 1906-07, (oil on canvas)

Paul Signac, Antibes, The Towers, 1911, (oil on canvas)

Paul Signac, Antibes, East Wind 1918-19, (oil on wood)

Paul Signac, Antibes, Four O'clock, 1903, (oil on canvas)

Henri-Edmond Cross, Saint-Clair Beach, 1901, (oil on canvas)

Henri-Edmond Cross, Toulon. Winter Morning, 1906-07, (oil on canvas)

Cross here connects with the unwavering values of Divisionism: the large touches evoke the mosaic and their ordering, more or less linear, gives the most prominent position to contrasts. The stillness of the sea is only disturbed by two elements: the approaching boat and the six birds swirling around a probable underwater prey, painted in a classical manner. The winter period, and its reduced sunshine, are brilliantly rendered, as is the atmosphere loaded down with humidity, which facilitates the formation of clouds diffracting the dim light of the sun.

Paul Signac, Seashore (Saint-Tropez, The Custom's Path), 1905, (oil on canvas)

Paul Signac, Saint-Tropez, Places des Lices, 1905, (watercolour heightened with pen)

3. A dialogue with the Fauves:

Henri Manguin, Jeanne on the Balcony of the Villa Demiere, 1905, (oil on canvas)

Louis Valtat, Red Rocks in Agay, 1903, (oil on canvas)

Theo Van Rysselberghe, Anthemis in Bloom, 1904, (oil on canvas)

Van Rysselberghe gradually distanced himself from division as of 1897. Although he embraced a style that could not be more classical, he did not fail to punctuate some of these works with a fragmented touch, reminiscent of his Neo-Impressionist years. The contrast might no longer be respected, but he achieved a completely comparable luminosity, as illustrated by Anthemis in Bloom. This distancing from the Neo-Impressionists made the critic Louis Vauxcelles say: 'The Midi by Van Rysselberghe belongs to him in his own right. It is neither the poetic Midi of Remoir... nor the rough Midi of Valtat, nor the translucent Midi of Signac, but a Midi of a gentle and noble harmony'.

Henri-Edmond Cross, Study for the Scarabee, 1905, (oil on canvas)

Paul Signac, Saint-Tropez, The Tartan, 1905, (oil on canvas)

Henri Manguin, Saint-Tropez, Sunset, 1904, (oil on canvas)