Jeremy Deller: The Battle Of Orgreave 2001

Artlyst Significant Works

Back in 1984, when he was a young person living through the Thatcher era, Jeremy Deller remembers seeing on TV what has now become an iconic moment. The violent confrontation between the police and the striking miners outside the coking plant in Orgreave, Yorkshire, and the miners being chased uphill, pursued through the village. That scene has become legendary. No single image so exemplifies the shift of the political tectonic plates in this country and the Thatcher government’s determination to break up the unions and, with them, traditional working-class communities and their way of life. The strike was to have a traumatically divisive effect, becoming an ideological battleground for the soul of the mineworkers. Families were torn apart, and the union movement split in its support for the NUM. For the young Deller, watching the police line up with their riot shields against the angry miners, it felt like civil war.

Then, in 1998, he saw an advert for open submissions to Artangel, that organisation which, in its own words, has ‘always gone where others fear to tread’ in facilitating the work of artists who think outside conventional boxes. Receiving a commission from them allowed him to do what he thought was impossible, stage a re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave. After two years of research, it finally took place on 17 June 2001 with the collaboration of the filmmaker Mike Figgis and a cast drawn from more than twenty expert historical re-enactment societies under the direction of the re-enactment tactician Howard Giles. Participants included veterans who had fought on both sides of the political battle lines.

The film weaves together original footage with re-enactment scenes and interviews. Mac McLoughlin, a former miner and then a serving police officer, talks of how he recognises, in retrospect, that he unwittingly played a part in breaking up his own community. While David Douglass of the NUM speaks about the relevance of the confrontation to the trade union movement. Tony Benn emphasises that there were deliberate distortions and untruths in the press reporting, including footage showing miners throwing stones at a phalanx of mounted police so that they looked like the aggressors when, in fact, they were responding to a belligerent police charge. An untruth that was later admitted by the BBC.

There’s also a poignant interview with the very articulate Stephanie Gregory (Women’s Support Group), whose reminiscences show the effect the strike had on family life. At first, she was suspicious of Deller’s project, but his involvement and diligence won her over. The treatment of the miners was, she said, ‘barbaric’. She insists these were ‘honest working men’ who, if they turned up for a peaceful demonstration, were branded troublemakers.

To revisit the film after all these years is to be taken back to a very different political landscape. The sound of drumming, the police with their riot shields and visors lined up against the jeering miners – many with mullets and sideburns – conjures a mediaeval battlefield rather than a labour dispute. The hurt and the anger felt by the busload of men travelling to the site for the re-enactment are still apparent. This is a subject that seems to have been talked about little, and the consequences are hardly addressed. For many, the enactment seems to be a cathartic moment when they can finally be seen and heard. As David Douglas of the NUM makes clear, the strike could have gone either way. It was so bitter because the men were fighting for their livelihoods, their very existence. If they’d won, he suggests, our political landscape might have looked very different. No privatisation. No zero-hour contracts. No food banks. Who knows, perhaps even no Brexit? Towards the end of the film, there is a shot of Thatcher, all bouffant hair and clipped vowels, insisting like some headmistress that industry must be modernised.

For Deller, it was important to include veterans of the original campaign in his reimagining. In an age of the blue-chip gallery, he is an artist who explores the differences between artifice, documentary record and historic fact, making him one of the most thoughtful around today. In the film, we encounter him in 2001 as a fresh-faced youth looking back on 1998, when he was a boy. For him, the strike clearly showed what was so wrong with this country that the government could behave like that to its own people. Now, 25 years on, its value is even more potent. This was the re-staging of a historic moment every bit as important as The Peterloo Massacre, one that occurred within living memory and forever changed the landscape of our lives. Watching it now, it seems to reflect a world with different values, one that belongs more to the last century than to our own. What was at stake was a working man’s pride in his labour and in his community. Those jobs in the pits have now been superseded by those in Amazon warehouses or shelf stacking in Iceland. However tough it was working underground, the miners could take a pride in keeping industry and the home fires burning. At the time, the print media contributed to a polarisation in society to the point where there appeared to be little space for a middle ground. Deller has no doubt that it was a pivotal moment, one that left a deep scar on this country. In all but name, it was an ideological battle between two opposing sections of British society. Now, as the event recedes into the shadows of history, The Battle of Orgreave, 2001, stands as a testament to the injustice done to the miners. It was not so much the closing of the pits as the trashing of their communities that caused so much damage. Deller has caught that devastating political moment for posterity. ‘It was,’ he says, like ‘digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem.’

Lead image: Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave, 2001. Production photograph: Martin Jenkinson courtesy of Artangel

Adventures in Art, Selected Writings 1990–2010

Art Books

Adventures in Art draws together 70 of Sue Hubbard’s essays on contemporary and modern art and spans the last 20 years of her career. Hubbard’s collected essays are part biographical, part lyrical reviews of today’s programme of modern art in Britain and provide an honest account of the diversities, originalities and disappointments found there.

Thick with anecdotes and quotes from historians, artists and commentators, Hubbard’s writing guides us through specific exhibitions, as well as the creative lives of her subjects, and places the reader within a context replete with description and art historical value. Her knowledge is incisive and reflective and, in many retrospective cases, the essays read like modern obituaries. Hubbard’s writing explores the lives and contributions of artistic figures from Lucien Freud and Sam Taylor Wood, to Marc Quinn and Cy Twombly.

Duccio’s Dawn

Ekphrastic Poetry


Day break and a mint light unfurls in the bottega’s
dark corners. Between church bell and dog bark
he bends to strengthen seasoned panels of poplar

with strips of linen, size them with rabbit glue
and chalky gesso sanded smooth as a woman’s skin.
A reed marks out the ghost of angels,

smudged charcoal is erased with a feather.
With squirrel brush and ink-wash he fills in drapery.
Shadows are applied with something blunter.

And then the gold. Tooled and punched with flowers
and stars. Cusped Gothic arches polished to burn bright
in deep church dark. At last the tempera:

terra verde, orpiment, cinnabar bound
with egg yolk and water that takes years to dry.
Yellow from country fowl for swarthy peasants.

Pale ones from town hens for the blessed saints.
And in the dusty silence he murmurs credos,
paternosters, an Ave Maria –

asks the Virgin to infuse his tongue
with that metallic taste of miracles
so he can paint the face of God.

Maestà, 1308–1311, tempera and gold on wood, 213 cm × 396 cm

The Policeman’s Daughter – After Paula Rego

Ekphrastic Poetry

There she sits in her white dress,
all Goody-Two-Shoes, eyes downcast,
the little Miss Prim.

But she doesn’t fool me
with all that elbow grease furiously
polishing his black boots at the kitchen table.

Look how her bare arm, fat as a ham,
disappears right down to the heel.
She’d have him believe she was a real

Daddy’s girl. Twists him round her little
finger. But the set of her mouth, I know that.
The I-dare-you-to-tell clench of her jaw.

When she pinches me under the gingham
cloth, sticks pin through the wings
of blue bottles she catches

In a sugar jar on the ledge of our attic
window, then, as they squirm, fixes them
to her dress, two shimmering brooches.

I’ve seen that flicker of a smile,
curled at the corner of her lips,
Spread across her mouth like a kiss.

Paula Rego, The Policeman’s Daughter, 1987

Naked Portrait 1972-3 – After Lucian Freud

Ekphrastic Poetry

I know this room as well as any prisoner
knows his cell, the harsh white pallor

tingeing the calamine rawness
of my skin infirmary green as pinioned

by his gaze I lie exposed across this
old brass bed, drowned cadaver on

a mortician’s marble slab. Though I give
everything I have, hold nothing back,

he barely sees me. A woman, a dog
for him they’re the same. At night

he breathes in my civet sweetness, by day
I’m an experiment in bald flesh;

nipples, pubic hair, my open thighs
terrain for his palette knife, the sable

brushes lying on the paint-clotted stool.
Crow-like he picks me clean.

My fan of fallen hair offers no protection
as he peels back my paper skin.
Outside his high windows
the winter morning is dark with rain;

buses, taxis, cyclists
swish through the glistening

mica streets as if there was
somewhere they needed to go.

Lucian Freud, Naked Portrait 1972-3

After Degas

Ekphrastic Poetry

Her young body lies a twisted S
In the pool of her black skirt,
The encased striations of her pin-

striped blouse, on a cool mattress
of sand under the tilted parasol,
Beneath closed eyelids

she breathes the thick
smell of surf and shore, hears
the yelp of damp dogs, the distant

shrieks of children running bare-
foot beneath the pewter sky,
as her sodden hair pours

onto the spread white cloth
where her mother drags and
and drags the shark-toothed comb

through the tangled mass.
She flinches, surfacing from day-
dreams: fat-bellied sails of distant

ships taught as bare skin, fish-tang
of rigging, the heave and heft
of dripping nets, wind unhooking her

like the steel eyelets on her bodice,
a taste of salt on her lips.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Beach Scene, 1877

Apprentice Pillar

Ekphrastic Poetry

They have eaten the sins of the world
these eight fishy dragons, scaleless serpents
with absurdly webbed wings.

Entwined round this stony bole the swim
its massive girth neither fish nor fowl
and from their elver jaws vines

coil heavenwards, stripped of speckled leaves,
flowers, the temptations of fruit,
like unfledged prayers wafting

into the moss-green light. He dreamt these
sandstone pleats and waves, a pillar so intricate,
his Master killed, jealous to see it reaching

towards a rosary of stars, the vault of Virgin lilies,
stone daisies of innocence, unnamed flowers
that open in Adoration of the sun.

I come to its sheltering from a sluice of Scottish rain
And find an eastern architrave that reads:
“ wine is strong, a King stronger,

women are stronger, but truth conquers all”
and wonder if such words apply to me here
in God’s garden where all’s right with the world.

It’s the second time: lured by loneliness,
the carved acanthus leaves where Green Men scowl,
angles blow crumhorns, twang zithers, plonk on lyres.

I could claim it’s the art or history; it’s easy
to be seduced by ancient certainties when
days feel like orchards blighted

by frost or latticed vines pruned bare.
When all old familiarities –
Children, lovers with arms as strong

as forest twine braided around the dark
heartwood have gone, and I am forced back to
this stripped centre, to apprentice dreams.

From Ghost Station
Published by Salt 2004

Apprentice pillar, Rosslyn Chapel, built 1446-1484

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Ekphrastic Poetry

It is as if by choosing this chromatic season,
with its slowing harmonies, when light grows thin and pale

on the garden wall, he might find equivalences
to the cacophony of niello swirls, that vortex of duns and pearls

in a veil of morning mist rising across the dew-soaked lawn
or damp twilight gathering like dust in unlit corners.

Perhaps between those interstices of splattered paint,
the smeared ochres and Chinese white, he could smell

wet leaves gathering in gutters, the pulpy stems of dahlias
rotting in terracotta pots or feel the low sun casting shadows

between the frost-bitten leaves of geraniums
yellowing on the slippery planks by the greenhouse door.

Maybe as the nights drew in he tried to push, like a moth
trapped in a vacated room, against the surface of visible light,

afraid that when it was done he would be left
in the dark, that irredeemable, unforgiving dark.

From Ghost Station
Published by Salt 2004

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), 1950

Klein’s Blue

Ekphrastic Poetry

Of the three boys
on a beach
who divided up the world

he got the sky
and signed his name
on its pristine surface,

then lay back to look up
at what he had created
thinking that God

must be envious.
But how he hated the birds
that flew across his perfect,

cloudless canvas
boring holes into his
most beautiful work.

Searching for a blue to beat
the creator at his own game
he suspended pure pigment,

particles of heaven
in crystal resin. Young girls.
their breasts and pubic hair

smeared in ultramarine
pinned down his sky
as he orchestrated them

in tuxedo and white gloves;
though the lines
of the actual body

held no interest,
for at night he dreamt only
of alchemy, of gravity and grace,

of stepping from that high
window to float above the city street
in a void of endless blue.

Published in The Forgetting and Remembering of Air
Salt 2013

Yves Klein, Blue Monochrome, 1961

Room in New York, 1932 – After Edward Hopper

Ekphrastic Poetry

Her dress is red.
Her bare arms white as sour cream.
Her hair is malt and softly looped
behind the long arc of her pale neck.
In the half-shadows she scans the page
of her book, her face the colour
of bruised plums, then sighs and turns
towards the lamp which has a shade
the same faded red as her dress.

His shirt is white.
His buttoned waistcoat and knotted tie
are black. He has taken off his jacket
in the heat and opened the window
onto the sticky night.
He sits in a pink velvet chair,
his face inclined towards his newspaper
as sometimes he might incline it
towards a kiss.

Their bowed heads form a diagonal
across the room.
though her chin is tilted to the right
and his to the left.
There is nothing between them
except a small round Maplewood table
set with a lace cloth, The table is polished.
and shimmers like a lake.
But it is not a lake.
It is simply a table that sits
between them, just as the walls,
which are yellow as illness
are just walls.

Somewhere down the hall
A door slams.

From Ghost Station
Published by Salt 2004

Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932




Flatlands is a homage to Paul Gallico’s classic short story The Snow Goose. Freda is a twelve-year-old evacuee from East London, who has been sent away at the start of the war, leaving behind everything familiar to her, to escape the expected German bombing.

In her new temporary home in Lincolnshire, Freda finds herself billeted with a strange, cold and, ultimately, abusive couple, whose lives mirror the barren landscape in which they live a hand to mouth existence, based upon subsistence farming and poaching.

There, deprived of any warmth, she meets a young man – Philip Rhayader -a conscientious objector who has left Oxford and his prospective vocation in the church following a nervous breakdown. Slowly, he introduces her to the wonders of the natural world and its enduring power to heal.

Flatlands is beautifully-written, and highly evocative of the remote Lincolnshire landscape, the Second World War and the two people whose loneliness brings them together for a life-changing time. I have always loved Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, and the way Flatlands riffs on this, Dunkirk and Peter Scott’s work as an ornithologist is an inspired development. It reminded me a little of Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley in its poignant account of a poor young girl’s experiences as an East End evacuee, and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s After Julius. Altogether a fine period novel, full of quiet drama and sorrow at loss, cruelty and mortality’
Amanda Craig

‘Compelling and beautifully intimate, Sue Hubbard’s Flatlands is a classic piece of storytelling.’
Toby Litt

‘Flatlands is a haunting and lyrical  novel about loneliness and the compensations of the natural world, art and unlikely friendships.
Maggie Brookes

Click for reviews and press…

‘The featureless Fens can be difficult to describe. For all the vastness of the skies, the flat fields often appear monotonous: “Apart from the occasional belt of trees and the spike of a distant church spire etched like a thin pencil line against the low sky, everything was drawn in horizontals.” However, Hubbard does an excellent job of conjuring this austere setting, and the consolations that can be found from withdrawing into nature, where the changing of the seasons and the routines of the wildlife offer their own companionship.

But Flatlands does not romanticise rural life. Frida lives with an abusive couple, who take the government’s evacuee payments, yet make little effort to feed or clothe her properly. Meanwhile, Rhayader struggles with his faith, his art, his sexuality and his sense of purpose. However, such hardships are part of the “special kind of loneliness” that is also fundamental to this empty fenland scenery…. The Essex marshes in Gallico’s novella were a vivid if vague presence, Hubbard’s Lincolnshire Fens are imagined in all their bleakness and beauty. In the process, she reveals the depths of feeling that can be found in even the flatest places.’
Flatlands – novel of the week in The Tablet

‘Taking its inspiration from Paul Galico’s novel The Snow Goose, Sue Hubbard’s Flatlands explores the wartime relationship that develops between Frida, a 12-year-old evacuee from the East End of London and Philip Rhayadar, a troubled conscientious objector, who are both exiled to the East Anglian fenlands. Precise in its historical detail and admirable in its evocation of the large skies and isolation of its setting, this is a moving study of an unlikely friendship and the healing power of natural world.’
The best historical fiction books of 2023, The Sunday Times

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Reviews in French
Le nouveau blog littéraire de Pierre Ahnne

Click for interviews…

Sue Hubbard introduces Flatlands

Sue Hubbard on writing Flatlands

Award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic Sue Hubbard introduces Flatlands – a moving tale of friendship and the beauty of nature, set in the wild landscape of the Fens during the Second World War.

In 1933 the ornithologist and wild life artist, Peter Scott, went to live in a deserted lighthouse on the mouth of the River Nene that runs into the Wash. It was in this isolated spot, full of wind and migrating birds, that he created his first bird sanctuary. In 1941, his friend the American journalist and short-story writer, Paul Gallico visited and subsequently published his children’s novella, The Snow Goose, a parable on the regenerative power of friendship, inspired by the lighthouse, which he relocated to Essex.

So how did I come to choose a children’s book, much loved by a post-war generation, as inspiration? Well, I was reading it to my grandchildren and was struck by the potential to create an adult story. I was drawn to the waterlands and wide skies of the Fens and to the characters of a young man and a girl, both outsiders, who create a bond by saving a wounded wild goose.

In Flatlands, I return the story to the remote corner of Lincolnshire where Scott’s lighthouse actually stands, to weave a narrative that examines the lives, emotions, and ethical dilemmas of my characters at the outbreak of the Second World War. In this remote, war-time landscape, with its airfields and bombers taking off for Germany, I take the bare bones of the original story and explore how Freda, a twelve year old East End evacuee, and a young Oxford student, Philip Rhayader, sent down after a crisis brought on by his pacifism and uncertain sexuality, give each other solace before being forced to face the terrible unforeseen consequences of the war that will change them forever.

Told through the eyes of Freda, now in her 80s, on the eve of celebrations to remember Dunkirk that are being celebrated in her old peoples’ home, Flatlands is a novel about memory, love and loss but a love expressed through an unlikely friendship that leads to that, now, rather unfashionable word, redemption.

Before starting the book I wanted to walk the sea wall from the lighthouse around the Wash to Kings Lynn, some 15 miles. It is so wild and lonely – with no mobile phone reception – that I took my son with me. During the whole day, we saw many birds but only three people.

During the writing, chance would have it that I met a painter at a party who turned out to be Peter Scott’s daughter, herself an ornithologist. Together we went to the lighthouse and watched from a bird hide, white swans and geese swimming in the dark. In order to understand how to manoeuvre a small boat down the River Nene and into the Wash and then on southbound towards Ramsgate to get to Dunkirk, I rang the Harbour Master at King’s Lynn, who talked me through it, suggesting a number of nautical maps on which I could plot a chart in order to avoid the sandbanks.

Research for a book like Flatlands takes one to all sorts of places. I had to watch videos on how to catch a wild goose and read about the hard life in the Fens just before and during the Second World War. I read books on farming and poaching and had to understand what it meant to be a conscientious objector and to be a young child evacuated out of the city into a remote part of the country with virtually no support or protection. I discovered the Inklings discussion group at Oxford that consisted of J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and found out, without ever going there, what the inside of the British Embassy in Paris looks like… I write organically, so my books grow bit by bit the deeper I dig into the background and times of my characters, fitting it all together like a jigsaw. The more one finds, the richer the book becomes.

Publication details

UK edition
Pushkin Press
256 pages, hardback
ISBN: 9781911590743

French edition (Un Ciel Si Vaste)
Mercure de France
288 pages
ISBN: 9782715260313



Eurydice has now been given a permanent home, due to the redevelopment of the South Bank, in the crypt of St. John’s Church, Waterloo. Carved in PUrbeck stone by the artist Gary Breeze and supported by the developers H. B Reavis.

The Battle of Waterloo

Poetry as public art is a fragile thing. Vulnerable as a butterfly it needs protection in a largely hostile terrain. In 1999 the acclaimed architect, the late Bryan Avery of Avery Associates, was responsible for the new IMAX project at Waterloo. This regeneration of the South Bank involved input from the BFI and the Arts Council. I was lucky enough to be commissioned as the poet – no doubt because I’d recently been nominated as The Poetry Society’s Public Art Poet – to write a poem for the rather grungy underpass that leads from the main entrance at Waterloo station down and through to the IMAX. My brief was to make a cold, dirty, urine soaked tunnel feel a better experience for those who walked through it. A tall order for a small poem.

I came up with the idea of a modern Eurydice. Going down into the tunnel felt much like entering the underworld. I wanted to provide a consoling, redemptive experience. The tunnel is quite long and it takes a while to walk through it. Long enough for words to penetrate the emotions, to stimulate thought and provide solace. The final image is of coming out into the light from the dark underworld.

Working with Bryan Avery was inspirational. He found a team of graphic designers who cooperated with me to produce a text that was both atavistic and ancient, modern and relevant. There was a small unveiling in front of the media and those for whom the tunnel was often home. The response was extremely positive. And that, I thought, was that.

Then in 2010, just by chance, I was alerted to the fact that the tunnel was being painted in blue and that the poem was being erased. No consultation had been made with me, the architects or any of the sponsors. Network Rail claimed they were ‘tidying it up’. My then poetry publisher, Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt, started a FB campaign and, much to my surprise, tributes and money poured in from the public. There was a huge press flurry with articles, in among other places, the Evening Standard and the Guardian. For some obscure reason I was even interviewed by Canadian Radio. A software firm, Neural Technologies, kindly put up the bulk of the money. A wonderful lawyer put herself forward on FB to work pro bono. The poem was restored by James Salisbury, a leading letter artist at the City and Guilds London art school. Eurydice is one of the largest pieces of text art in the city and had, before it was painted blue, just before been listed by Time Out as one of London’s best pieces of secret art.

Now there is a danger it could happen again. Early the other morning I received a text form my daughter with a photo of men in Bob the Builder hats plastering the wall. No one had consulted me. No one had informed me. I quite understand that these tunnels need maintenance and that they are the property of Network Rail. But they don’t own the poem. The contract says they should keep it in good order.

I tried to contact the person I’d dealt with in 2010. To no avail. So took to Twitter, not a social platform I normally use, except to post new projects. I soon found myself in a something of a Twitter storm. Peter Hendy, the Chairman of Network Rail, introduced himself on there for the first time.

Contrary to what’s being implied I’m not some publicity crazed poet. The poem exists in printed form in my second collection. This battle is about the fragility of public art in an urban space. The need to protect it in places where it provides succour and comfort in a gritty alien landscape. I’ve been incredibly moved over the years by the personal messages I’ve received from those who’ve come across the poem: some tragic, some truly uplifting. And that is the point. As artists and poets we put things out into the public domain and never know how others are going to receive them, what effect they might have. It’s for this reason that the Waterloo poem and other public art works are so important, so worth preserving.

And the purpose of this piece? To show that public art is a fragile thing, easily broken on the wheel of corporate bureaucracy. Sadly from the start, when I was working with Bryan, Network Rail have treated the project as an irritant, rather than being the proud custodians of a unique gift. This time around I hope they will show their attitude has changed. That they understand a small thing such as a poem can enter the city’s psyche and that they’ll take on the stewardship of this loved art work, which no longer belongs to me but to London.


I am not afraid as I descend,
step by step, leaving behind the salt wind
blowing up the corrugated river,

the damp city streets, their sodium glare
of rush-hour headlights pitted with pearls of rain;
for my eyes still reflect the half remembered moon.

Already your face recedes beneath the station clock,
a damp smudge among the shadows
mirrored in the train’s wet glass,

will you forget me? Steel tracks lead you out
past cranes and crematoria,
boat yards and bike sheds, ruby shards

of roman glass and wolf-bone mummified in mud,
the rows of curtained windows like eyelids
heavy with sleep, to the city’s green edge.

Now I stop my ears with wax, hold fast
the memory of the song you once whispered in my ear.
Its echoes tangle like briars in my thick hair.

You turned to look.
Second fly past like birds.
My hands grow cold. I am ice and cloud.

This path unravels.
Deep in hidden rooms filled with dust
and sour night-breath the lost city is sleeping.

Above the hurt sky is weeping,
soaked nightingales have ceased to sing.
Dusk has come early. I am drowning in blue.

I dream of a green garden
where the sun feathers my face
like your once eager kiss.

Soon, soon I will climb
from this blackened earth
into the diffident light.

First published in Ghost Station (Salt Publishing), 2004

Sue Hubbard was commissioned to write this poem by the Arts Council and British Film Institute for the Waterloo underpass leading to the IMAX cinema in London.

See also Hubbard’s thoughts on the links between poetry and the visual arts.

Eurydice, London’s largest public art poem, Imax Underpass, Waterloo

Campaign to save Eurydice

The Guardian – Save a great poetry landmark
The Guardian – Waterloo underpass poem to be restored
Art Daily
3 Quarks Daily
Wall Street Journal

Radium Dreams



‘I’ve never seen a book as impeccably produced as Radium Dreams – exquisite poems by Sue Hubbard matched by superb artwork by Eileen Cooper – a tribute to the life and work of Marie Curie, published by the Women’s Art Collection. Sue retells Marie Curie’s life in beautifully crafted spare poems, it’s such a moving and inspiring story, this woman who achieved so much despite the odds against her, and is buried in a lead coffin in the Pantheon in Paris because she is still radioactive. What a metaphor.’
Rosie Jackson – poet

Click for reviews and press…

‘Radium Dreams at Murray Edwards College: Murray Edwards College’s latest exhibition is a stunning homage to the physicist Marie Curie featuring poetry by Sue Hubbard and artwork by Eileen Cooper. The exhibition, which opened 2 March and will be running until 3 September 2023, explores the idea of creative support, examining the relationship between Curie and her sister, and Curie and her husband. The exhibition works perfectly alongside “The Women’s Art Collection”, Murray Edwards’ long standing exhibition of women’s artwork, which celebrates women in the world of art and can be found interspersed throughout the hallways of the College.’

‘Marie’s story is by turns tragic and uplifting and has much to tell young women now. It is elucidated beautifully in this unique collaboration between two leading women in the arts today.’
Dorothy Byrne, President, Murray Edwards College

Patricia McCarthy on Radium Dreams

Sue Hubbard on Radium Dreams

I have long been interested in the lives of exceptional women. Those who make art or write against the odds, who have to juggle childcare, prevailing misogyny and, in many cases, poverty to fulfil their dreams and potential. Many creative and academic women would still recognise these hurdles today. But how much more difficult was it for a woman living at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries? In my novel, Girl in White, I explore these issues through the life of the young German Expressionist painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker. Her desire to break free from her bourgeois Teutonic upbringing, to balance a domestic life in rural Germany with periods of being a (female) artist without means, in fin de siècle Paris. Many of the same problems were faced by the Welsh painter, Gwen John, whose singular life I have written about in my new series of poems, God’s Little Artist, published later this year.

As an art critic I naturally feel at home in the visual world. I wanted to challenge the use of familiar painterly language by borrowing that of science. This led to a series of poems on the remarkable life of the greatest female scientist, Marie Curie. Ever keen that poetry should escape the confines of the white page and converse with other art forms, I invited the artist Eileen Cooper, RA, whom I’ve known and written about for some thirty years, to make work alongside mine. Her fearless, muscular female images seemed just what was needed to complement my poems. Her work does not ‘illustrate’ the poems but rather adds another dimension. Slowly, I began to share the poems and she responded by experimenting with a series of paintings, drawings and collages. This produced the compelling images that form, along with the poems, the exhibition Radium Dreams – supported by The Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College Cambridge, for International Women’s Day.

A Helping Hand, 2022. Charcoal, pastel

Marie Curie was born Manya Salomea Sklodowska in 1867 in Warsaw, at a time when Poland was under the grip of Tsarist Russian rule, and the Polish language outlawed. The daughter of an impoverished secondary school teacher, hers was, nevertheless, a household where education was taken very seriously. Radium Dreams explores the creative support between Marie and her sister Bronislawa, who was to become a doctor in Paris, and between Marie, as she started to call herself in France, and her beloved husband, Pierre Curie, Professor of Physics, whom she met whilst studying physics and mathematical science at the Sorbonne. Their early, joint research often had to be performed in poor laboratory conditions. At the same time both were forced to make ends meet with heavy teaching loads to support their two young daughters. The discovery by Henri Becquerel, in 1896, of radioactivity led to their isolation of polonium, named after the country of Marie’s birth, and of radium. For this they were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize in 1903. Marie would later go on to be sole winner of the 1911 Prize for Chemistry. The first woman to win a Nobel prize, and the only one to do so twice.

Radium Dreams showcases the moments of struggle, tenderness and joy that thread though Marie’s early life in Poland: visiting her grandmother’s house, taking sleigh rides though the deep snow and falling in love for the first time. As well as the hard graft she had to endure as a governess before being able, with the support of her sister, to go to Paris to study. It also covers her time at the Sorbonne and the long hours in the laboratory stirring noxious pitchblende, a mineral high in radio activity.

With the tragic and untimely death of Pierre in a carriage accident, Marie was vilified for her affair with his pupil the younger scientist Paul Langevin. Even so, she still managed to take over her husband’s university post. During the First World War she put her research on hold to create Les Petites Curies, mobile x-ray machines that she and her daughter took to the front. But her work with radium would slowly kill her. When she died, she was so radioactive that she had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin.

Radium Dreams reflects a collaboration between women: a female poet and female artist celebrating the life of the greatest ever female scientist at an all-women’s college for International Women’s Day. Marie Curie was not only a brilliant scientist but a daughter, sister, mother, wife and lover. Radium Dreams illustrates not only her inquisitive mind and dedication to the intellectual questions posed by her line of scientific enquiry, but also throws empathetic light on her vulnerabilities, passions and frailties as a woman who struggled against the odds to make a ground-breaking contribution to science and secure her place in history.

Radium Dreams, 2022. Collage, drawing, ink, pastel, screenprint.

Publication details

Poems by Sue Hubbard, drawings by Eileen Cooper
Women’s Art Collection, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge

Vermeer: Stillness and Light Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

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Art Criticism

Delft was Vermeer’s city. Stand in front of his small painting, The Little Street of 1658 and you will see cobbles and a gabled brick house with leaded windows, just as you still see all around you in the city today.

Unlike his contemporaries Vermeer was not interested in movement but in stillness – SH

A woman is sitting in a darkened doorway, sewing. Another stands in an alleyway, bent over a broom. In the foreground, a girl appears to be playing a game with a young boy on the pavement. Ordinary people going about their lives in the stillness of a Delft morning. There is a sense of order, of quiet domesticity in the red-bricked architecture and ordered rows of cobbles. Cleanliness appears, here, to be very close to Protestant godliness. The palette is constrained, our eye drawn to the central dark doorway by the white blob of the seated woman’s crisp bonnet and shawl. This is a whole world. Not the world found in Blake’s grain of sand, but in a morning of Dutch domesticity.

The Little Street 1659 Rijksmuseum

Not much is known about Vermeer’s life other than he lived most of it in Delft and that his father was some sort of art dealer. After his death, Vermeer married Catherina Bolnes, a young woman from a well-to-do, cultured Catholic family with whom he had fourteen or fifteen children, not all of whom survived. His output was comparatively small – he died in his early 40s – but he is one of those artists whose paintings, such as The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Women in Blue Reading a Letter or the Lacemaker, are almost more well-known than the artist himself. This wonderful exhibition, the first retrospective of Johannes Vermeer in the history of the Rijksmuseum, is not big. There are 28 paintings, (out of 36 in total) all beautifully hung in the darkly dramatic galleries.

Unlike his contemporaries Vermeer was not interested in movement but in stillness. Intense moments of revelation and quiet. A young woman in a dark room, lit only by the outside light spilling in from the window, fixes a row of pearls around her neck whilst she stares out into the larger world beyond. Inside and outside is a recurring theme. In the history of art, windows have a special significance as the painting itself is often seen as a ‘window’. In Young Woman with a Lute, a girl sits at a table tuning her instrument. Scattered in front of her are sheets of music. Others lie on the tiled floor next to a viola da gamba. Behind her is a large map of Europe showing the Netherlands’ place as a modern country interested in expansion and cartography. The young woman is dressed in a yellow silk jacket trimmed with ermine and is wearing a large pearl earring. (Though the fur may only be rabbit and the pearl, glass). The foreground of the painting is darkened, so in contrast, the girl’s face is highlighted. Her wide-eyed expression indicates that she is distracted by something going on outside that is much more interesting than tuning her lute. Elsewhere women write letters, sometimes watched over by a maidservant who, presumably, has greater access to the outside world and will be the person who will deliver the letter.

The Milkmaid 1659 Rijksmuseum

In another of Vermeer’s most celebrated paintings, The Milkmaid (or Kitchen maid), the slow stream of white milk being poured from her earthenware jug into a bowl, along with the highlights of her white bonnet and the reflected light on her bare, working girl’s forearm –again from a high window– give the painting its quiet spirituality. This is a libation. Her blue skirt and the blue tablecloth suggest the heavenly blue of more obviously religious paintings. You might almost be looking at an altarpiece by Pierro della Francesca.

There is the belief that Vermeer documented the domestic world of his time, but his is an invented pictorial world, an illusion of reality. Middle-class Dutch homes would not have had black and white tiled floors as in Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid. His genius lies not only in the sensitivity of his compositions but in his ability to master perspective and to create optical effects with the sharpness and blurring of paint to reproduce different plays of light. Objects are created through colour and tonal values rather than graphically. Vermeer was the master of light. Yet however close you get to a painting, it’s hard to see the brush marks to discern how he did it. Lawrence Gowing described him as ‘all eye and nothing else….a walking retina drilled like a machine’.

Girl With A Pearl Earring 1667

Compared to our modern world, Vermeer’s would have been very quiet apart from the bark of dogs, the cry of playing children or a baby, the shouts of those selling goods in the market. You only have to look at Vermeer’s glorious View of Delft, painted between 1660-61, to see how empty and probably quiet the city was. A clutch of people stand by a boat; two women chat on the edge of the canal. The only sounds would have been their voices in the wind, the lapping water and the creaking of the wooden boats, broken hourly by a peel of church bells visible on the other side of the canal. But that comparative quiet would have been broken from time to time by music. Not only does Vermeer give us the girl with a lute, but we see the same girl playing a guitar. Elsewhere a woman stands at a virginal, while two other paintings show the young women seated at theirs. They look straight out at the viewer as if appealing directly to us and the world outside. These have been brought together for the first time in many a long year. One of these works comes from the National Gallery, London, the other from the Leiden Collection, New York.

So what is the huge appeal to us now of Vermeer? Why is he so popular? Perhaps it is because his work seems so modern. His subjects are not saints or heroes but family and close neighbours. His spare, minimal interiors are peopled by those with whom we can identify, ordinary people going about their daily lives, cooking, sewing, writing letters (love letters perhaps?), playing music, chatting, and being bored. Those in whom we can readily see something of ourselves and our own lives. And then, of course, there is the paint—Luminous, shimmering, almost otherworldly, applied by the hand of a master.

Words: Sue Hubbard
Photos: P C Robinson
© Artlyst 2023

Vermeer: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam 10 February – 4 June 2023 Daily 9 to 18h

Andy Goldsworthy: Storm King Wall 1997 – 1998

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

‘The child,’ Wordsworth famously remarked, ‘is father to the man.’ Growing up in West Yorkshire, the land was always close to Andy Goldsworthy’s heart. At 13, he began to spend his free time working as a farm labourer, developing an awareness of the seasons and what the poet T. S. Eliot identified as the cycle of ‘birth, copulation and death’. He has likened the repetition of farm work to the physical nature of making sculpture. During his time as an art student at what is now the University of Central Lancashire, he created ephemeral works of rock and stone at nearby Morecambe Bay, which were washed away by the tide, adding the element of time to his use of found natural materials.

In the 1980s, land artists such as the great Robert Smithson of the monumental Spiral Jetty made in 1970 took work outside the gallery, the sacred space of the modernist white cube, to question the status of and the framework around a contemporary art object. By placement within a natural setting, the viewer was challenged to consider preconceived notions of what constituted a work of art. In the late 50s and early 60s, the materials of technology and industry, as used by sculptors such as David Smith and, later, Sir Anthony Caro, became the dominant language of the New York Art World. Any notions of ‘craft’ pretty well collapsed. The result was that many artists felt estranged from the land, from the slow accretions of time and entropy. Curatorial control became prevalent, with the imposition of limits set by someone other than the artist.

In the 80s, Andy Goldsworthy became associated with the burgeoning Environmental Art Movement

in which artists were beginning to question how human societies affect the environment in which we live. In America, these included the likes of Nancy Holt and in the UK, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. Drawing on Romanticism, they moved the debate along from simply feeling awe at the natural world (as did Turner and Constable) to examining the connections between the sociological and the environmental. Turning to science, ecology and philosophy, artists began to suggest an ethical relationship to climate change and environmental damage, an awareness of the world in which we live. Seeking out new and unusual locations meant they could work away from the gallery system and the commercial art market. Incorporating his love of photography, Andy Goldsworthy documented his often ephemeral, beautiful works constructed with stones, leaves, snow and ice before they disappeared. ‘Each work,’ he said, ‘grows, stays, decays – integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive…..Process and decay are implicit. His aim was for his audience to experience the natural world, to feel how we all exist as part of its warp and weft. Instead of simply representing the landscape in the manner of a traditional landscape painter, he embedded his work into the landscape itself, collaborating and negotiating with it, allowing his materials to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories. Storm King Wall,1997-1998, is one of the artist’s most iconic works.

In 1989, Goldsworthy constructed his serpentine Wall that Went for a Walk in Cumbria. A decade later, he built the 2,278-foot stone wall, Storm King Wall, on the foundations of an old dairy farm wall found in the woods overlooking Moodna Creek in New York’s Hudson Valley. Made to last, it evokes a lost agricultural past. Using no mortar, he simply interlocked and fitted field stones together in the manner of the Yorkshire dry stone walls of his childhood, built for centuries on the moors and in the dales. Constructed in a coppice near a creek, it took three weeks, five men and 250 tons of stone to build. If a wall is a delineation between spaces, one that defines, say, the ownership between two fields or stretches of land, this refuses to play that role as it loops around and between trees and saplings on its way down to a pond, creating a relationship between ground, sky, water and trees.

Goldsworthy speculated that, gradually, these same trees would cause the wall to collapse, just as their roots had probably caused the demise of the original wall. In many ways, it is unremarkable because it has become so integrated into the landscape with its simple serpentine elegance. But it’s more than a delineation between this place and that or a declaration of ownership. It is a way marker, which, if walked along or beside, changes how we experience the contours of the land, even our relationship to the sky. It defines the place, making it special, as it curls and doubles back between the trees, emphasising them so that, if it were not there, we probably wouldn’t notice. This observation is made more poignant in the knowledge that it will be the trees and their roots that one day will destroy the wall.

Although made nearly 40 years ago, this work could not be more relevant to the current debate about what our relationship should be with the natural world. While we still pump out fossil fuels into the atmosphere, mine lithium for batteries and pollute the seas, this built intervention snaking its way through the landscape reminds us, as we pillage and destroy, that we can build and live on this planet if, only, we adopt the credo from the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. Beautiful in its quiet monumentality, Storm King Wall demonstrates that it is possible to live in creative harmony with the world.

Top Photo: Andy Goldsworthy British, b. 1956: Storm King Wall, 1997–98 Fieldstone 60 in. x 2278 ft. 6 in. x 32 in. (152.4 cm x 694.5 m x 81.3 cm) Gift of the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Joel Mallin, Mrs. W. L. Lyons Brown, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. James H. Ottaway, Jr., the Margaret T. Morris Foundation, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Hazen Fund, the Joseph H. Hazen Foundation, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Ronald N. Romary, Dr. Wendy Schaffer and Mr. Ivan Gjaja, and an anonymous foundation Photo ©Andy Goldsworthy, courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York Photo by Jerry L. Thompson.

Antony Gormley: Angel Of The North

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Artlyst Significant Works

We are enthralled by gigantic statues. The ancient Greeks referred to them as kolossoi. The word was first used by Herodotus to describe the massive stone statues built by the Pharos of Egypt. Two such famous statues in Herodotus’ time were Pheidias’ Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis of Athens, reputedly clad in gold and ivory to glimmer and shimmer under the Greek sun, and the statue of Zeus at Olympia, built around 430 BC, considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Angel of the North is a reminder of how important it is to create markers of memory that give meaning to our communities – SH

The Colossus of Rhodes was the largest statue erected in antiquity. A miracle of ancient engineering, it represented the sun god Helios. Built in 280 BC to celebrate the victory by Rhodes over Demetrius Poliorectes, it supposedly stood towering over the island’s military harbour before being destroyed in an earthquake. Cast in bronze and standing on a white marble plinth, it was around 33 meters high. ‘Few people can make their arms meet round the thumb’, wrote the historian Pliny the Elder. The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (to give it its full title), erected on a pedestal on Liberty Island in Upper New York was a gift to the USA from France and based on the Rhodes colossus. It soon became a beacon of freedom, welcoming immigrants arriving in America by sea. When erected in 1886, it was the tallest statue in the world but has since been surpassed by the Spring Temple Buddha, a 420 feet high-gilded copper version of Buddha Vairocana in China’s Henan Province.

Though the A1 doesn’t quite have the exotic ring of ancient Egypt or Greece, Antony Gormley’s The Angel of The North has, if not put Gateshead on the international map, become one of the most recognisable pieces of public artwork in this country. In 1990 the Lower Tyne Colliery pithead baths were reclaimed with a view to erecting a public sculpture to commemorate the work of the miners and to mark the difficult transition between the end of the industrial era and a slow (and sometimes painful) move into the age of technology. Using the vernacular of Tyneside engineering, famous for its shipbuilding, the Angel is ten times life-size, a self-supporting structure fabricated in fibreglass and Corten steel, based on Gormley’s own body. The oxidisation of the steel gives it its distinctive rusty colour. Before its erection, there was a lot of nimbyism and cries of a ‘waste of money’. A local paper even dug up a picture of a winged figure built during the Third Reich that they published under the headline: NAZI…BUT NICE.

The technical challenges were enormous. How could it withstand the prevailing south-easterly winds, the rain, sun and snow? Erected on a mound near the A1 motorway, the scale is important as the valley is a mile and a half wide and the viewer likely to be travelling past at speed in a car. Slowly the local residents have been won over, taking pride in the 20 metres (the height of a five-story building or four double-decker buses) statue with its 54-metre wing span (bigger than a Boeing 757 or 767 jet) standing on 500 tonnes of concrete that gives their locality a special distinction.

Way markers have been erected since humans first moved from place to place to tell us who we are and help us find our way home. In remote heathlands and mountains, travellers could die if they lost their way in poor weather and way markers, at first often no more than simple cairns or a heap of loose stones, provided reference points in a hostile landscape. Romans erected them to mark the way for their soldiers, while the early Christians placed crosses at road junctions. In the 17th century milestones, such as the Trinity Hall series between Cambridge and Royston on the B1638, were erected with the advent of the Royal Mail to help post riders make good progress and know where they were. Pilgrims on the Camio de Santiago follow stone markers and mounds, as well as the famous scallop shell. These not only guide them on their way but offer a symbolic and spiritual sense both of leaving and arriving.

In an alien, frightening world before widespread urbanisation, humans needed to calibrate where they were to orientate themselves. Unmediated space was frightening. Creating markers in the landscape was not only practical but implied control over untamed nature long before there were maps by which to orientate ourselves. The Sphynx in the desert makes that bit of desert singular and stand out from the endless sea of surrounding sand. Space is what sculptors work with. Their objects are designed in encompass and mediate space. Since the beginning of time, they have worked with human dimensions, measuring in hands and feet. A sculpture converses with its location, with the space in which it has been placed. Unlike a painting, it is not an illusion but a three-dimensional ‘thing’ that we are able to approach and walk around. It inhabits a space with its physical presence, much as we inhabit it with our bodies. The Angel of the North is a reminder of how important it is to create markers of memory that give meaning to our communities, both past and present, as well as mirror our sense of place in the wider world.

Photo: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Attribution: nikko23_99

William Kentridge: Ubu Tells The Truth

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Artlyst Significant Works

Ubu Roi was first performed on December 10th, 1896, at what is now the Théâtre de Paris on the Rue Blanche. A stylised burlesque by the French playwright Alfred Jarry, it satirised power, greed, bourgeois complacency, along with the institutional abuse of power. The scatological language, the apparently childish writing and production in which Jarry insisted that King Ubu wear a cardboard crown on his head like a character from a mummer’s play caused a riotous response. Something of a cause célèbre, it opened the door to Dadaism, Surrealism and the theatre of the absurd. A parody of Macbeth (with a smattering of Hamlet and a soupçon of King Lear thrown in for good measure), its single performance was lambasted by those who saw it, with the exception of W.B. Yeats and the poet and essayist Catulle Mendès, who considered it to be a ground-breaking work. Since its inception, successive generations have reinvented Ubu Roi to suit their own ends.

Ubu Tells the Truth is among Kentridge’s most impassioned and violent works

The white south African artist William Kentridge has used the play to express his views against South African apartheid and its vicious attacks on its black citizens. Born in 1955 to liberal Jewish parents, lawyers who represented those marginalised by the system, Kentridge grew up in a highly politicised household. Despite a precocious artistic talent, he studied Politics and African studies at Witwatersrand university before embarking on a diploma in Fine Arts and studying mime and theatre at the famous L’ École de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Originally he wanted to be an actor and between 1975 and 1991 acted and directed with Johannesburg’s Junction Avenue Theatre. These diverse creative strands, along with a comprehensive knowledge of film and opera, have contributed to a singular body of work that incorporates elements of theatre, cinema and drawing to create hard-hitting social and political commentary that steps into areas where few white artists have dared to go.

In 1994 Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa after his long Robin Island incarceration. The following year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up under the auspices of Archbishop Desmon Tutu to address the wounds inflicted by apartheid. In 1997 Jane Taylor, a long-time collaborator with Kentridge, wrote Ubu and The Truth Commission, a theatrical piece which was developed with the Handspring Puppet Company and directed by Kentridge.

Ubu Tells the Truth is among Kentridge’s most impassioned and violent works, which highlights the shenanigans of a ridiculous but devastating despot. As with Jarry’s original play, power is revealed and undercut through the use of the absurd. Built from a palimpsest of etchings and charcoal drawings, clips were created by the constant erasure of an image and then adding further layers of charcoal. These were then mixed together with archival footage and animations from the original stage production. The film has been exhibited on its own, or as in the show at the RA, with accompanying wall drawings.

A grotesque, cartoon-like man, corpulent and over-fed, sporting a curled moustache, struts across the screen full of menace and self-importance. The sketchy black and white animations endlessly transmute. A drawing of an eye blinks, then transforms into a real staring eye, evoking the notorious razor scene in Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Later it metamorphosises into a camera fixed to a tripod (to become the eye of surveillance?), scuttling across the screen like Kafka’s cockroach in Metamorphosis. Human skulls and bones, scissors, and a hack saw (the instruments of torture) all tumble down a shower plughole, along with human skulls and bones and a seemingly, innocent bird to disappear in what might be seen as an act of washing away guilt and evidence. The head of a pig appears out of a cloud wearing earphones, and a curvaceous female body dances before evolving into a scissor-wielding skeleton. A dance of death, or a nod to the pornography of violence, perhaps? It is difficult to know, for there is no exact translation of Kentridge’s imagery. Nothing is spelt out. The images simply pile one upon the other in an orchestrated symphony of implied violence to create dreamlike associations.

There are fat men in striped suits and black bodies that fall from skyscraper windows or have their heads rammed into buckets in empty rooms before being lassoed by the feet and left to swing like Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit from trees. Drawings of broken bodies and pools of blood flash past. Interspersed with these are short archival film clips of the South African police violently attacking black unarmed apartheid protestors with whips, charging into a running crowd in Cato Manor in 1960 or storming a group of students at Wits University in 1985, along with footage from the 1976 Soweto uprising. All the while, the balletic camera/tripod/eye scuttles past on its thin mechanical legs, watching, recording, and noting.

Ubu Tells the Truth makes for uncomfortable viewing with its absurd, jerky, brutal juxtapositions of sound, cartoon-like drawings and photographic material. As in all of Kentridge’s work, the viewer is never let off the hook. There is no place to hide. No ideological position, no didacticism or moral lesson is offered. Instead, he lifts a Swiftian mirror to show that this is what humans are capable of doing, one to another when power becomes absolute. The political artist has become a rare beast in our postmodern world, but Kentridge has shown with passionate commitment that it can still have teeth.

William Kentridge, Royal Academy of Arts, 24 September – 11 December 2022

Women Making Modernism A Revisionist History – Royal Academy

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Art Criticism

The title ‘Making Modernism’ implies that the artists included in this Royal Academy exhibition were at the forefront of the avant-garde. That they were an essential component in breaking the boundaries of 19th-century academic art for new freedoms. They would probably be very surprised to find themselves seen thus. It has taken more than a century for their importance to be re-evaluated and appreciated. Why? Because they were women.

By focusing on ‘analytical’ self-portraits…. these women explored new relationships to the making of art.

At the beginning of the 20th century, for a woman to be a serious painter (not just an accomplished ‘lady’ who painted flower arrangements and pretty views) was a near impossibility. Art schools and academies were closed to them. No dealers were interested. Those on show here did not form a coherent artistic movement. Some were friends or acquaintances. Others did not know each other. But what they did have in common was a new way of thinking about how to be both a woman and an artist. Subjects rather than objects in charge of their own artistic and emotional destinies. The exhibition focuses on the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin, along with works by other German women in their milieu and for whom Expressionism – as this new art was to become known – allowed for an exploration of the self. By focusing on ‘analytical’ self-portraits, where their bodies were used as maps into their psychological identities rather than as objects for the sexualised male gaze, on children, landscapes and still lives, these women explored new relationships to the making of art. In so doing, they were beginning – consciously or not – to investigate what it felt like to be alive during a time of entrenched sexual, social and colonial hierarchies, yet a time when everything was also on the brink of change.

In 1888 the conservative Kaiser Wilhelm II acceded to the Imperial throne and reigned until 1888. As a relatively new nation, he was keen that Germany should have a coherent, well-defined view of itself and that German art should remain ‘free of so-called modern directions and influences’. By this, he meant the pull of Paris and its inescapable aura of modernity. For many of these artists, the French capital was a mecca of intellectual, artistic and emotional freedom — a place where they could break free from the constrictions of bourgeois German life. The term Expressionism was one coined by the artist and President of the Berlin Secession, Lovis Corinth, to describe an exhibition of Fauvist art held in Berlin in 1911 and artists such as Gauguin and Cézanne, who had broken with Impressionism. Central to many creatives – from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Picasso’s appropriation of the African mask – was a rising interest in ‘primitivism’. The belief that the child, the peasant and those from ‘far-flung’ cultures were more connected to what was ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ to their true visceral and sexual natures. The new ethnological museums in Paris, Dresden and Berlin gave access to objects that were the bounty of recent colonial plunder. Attracted by the simplicity of line and chthonic quality, most western artists were unaware that these stolen artefacts were being shown largely divorced from their spiritual or ritualistic contexts. It was in this cultural flux that Kollwitz, Modersohn-Becker, Münter and Werefkin were working. Though ‘privileged white women,’ nonetheless, they were enormously disadvantaged by their gender. Identification with the ‘otherness’ of the ‘primitive’ gave them a language that allowed for an exploration, outside the strictures of middle-class femininity, of alternative representations of both themselves and others. It’s no accident that this was the era of Freud and the nascent ‘science’ of psychoanalysis and the first rumblings of women’s rights.

Käthe Kollwitz, Mother Pressing Her Baby to Her Face 1925

Käthe Kollwitz is the most overtly political of the artists in the show. Growing up in a vehemently socialist family, they viewed her future as a history painter (an exclusively male domain at the time). After five years of private education, she moved to Berlin, where she participated in the city’s vibrant café culture and intellectual life. In 1890 she made the decision to reject painting and embrace the graphic arts, believing that they could better carry her social and political message. At the age of 17 she met the radical young doctor Karl Kollwitz and witnessed the harsh conditions of the urban proletariat. Her two sons and members of her family acted as models for her lithographs and etchings that expressed her socialist sensibilities and led her to make print cycles such as Peasants’ War (1901-08). The results were tender, sensitive pencil drawings such as Head of a Child in Its Mother’s Hands, 1900, and the emotionally potent, black and white etching, Woman with Dead Child, 1903, in which she used herself as subject cradling her son, Peter. Peter was to die in action in 1914, and Kollwitz, haunted by the support she gave him to enlist, became a pacifist. Her visceral pencil and charcoal drawings inform her prints and sculptures; while stripped bare of ornamentation, her woodcuts combine romanticism with social realism. In a stark black-and-white self-portrait from 1924, she might be posing as the model for Bertold Brecht’s Mother Courage.

Gabriele Münter is perhaps best known – as so many women of that period were – for her relationship with a man. In this case, Kandinsky. Born to German parents in the USA, where she lived during her early years, her family later returned to Germany. The premature death of her father left her independently wealthy, a position unfamiliar to many other of these female artists, such as Modersohn-Becker. After a summer spent working alongside Kandinsky, Marianne Werefkin and Alexei Jawlensky Kollwitz, Münter wrote: ‘All at once it ‘clicked’ and I felt liberated.’ Heavy impasto, applied with short brush strokes, gave way to fluid, swiftly applied paint that created bolder, flatter compositions. Colour was used to reflect her inner world. Her paintings of Kandinsky sitting at a table and Paul Klee in an armchair abandon graphic ‘likeness’ for atmosphere and mood.

Born into an aristocratic family in Moscow, Marianne Werefkin studied realist painting at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. A move, with her father, after her mother’s death, to St. Petersburg, where the academies were closed to women, led her to take private lessons and make connections with the city’s intelligentsia. During an unconventional relationship with the young painter Alexei Jawlensky, whose career she promoted, her own work took a back seat for a number of years. In her diary, she wrote, ‘I am not a man, I am not a woman, I am myself…. Being an artist does not mean possessing a faculty of combing lines and paints…but having a world inside oneself and individual forms to express it’. A meeting with the dancer Alexander Sacharoff led to a portrait, in 1909, of sweeping, stylised lines that reflected the current Japanese influence. With its simplified tonalities and mask-like face turned away like a geisha’s from a clutched flower, there’s more than an echo, here of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which premiered at La Scala in 1904.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Seated Girl, Her Legs Pulled Up c1904

But it’s Paula Modersohn-Becker who declares herself as the most avant-garde and innovatory of the painters in this exhibition. During the research for my novel, Girl in White – based on her life – I went to Worpswede on the north German moors to visit what had been the artists’ community to which she had attached herself. There she met the poet Rilke and Otto Modersohn, an academic painter ten years older than her, who would become her husband. It would be there, too, that she would find her soul, even if it were one that was constantly pulled towards the modernity of Paris. Unlike other artists in this group, Paula had no independent means and struggled to make a way for herself, breaking many of the social codes expected of a young bourgeois German woman at the time. Her approach was daring, determined and brave when, after marrying Otto Modersohn and feeling emotionally and artistically smothered, she left without funds to live and study in Paris. In her diary, she wrote, ‘To strive for the greatest simplicity by means of the most intimate observation. This is greatness.’ This show includes some wonderful paintings such as Seated Nude Girl, Her Legs Pulled Up, 1904 and Portrait of an Italian Girl, 1906. Here, the children are not romanticised but painted in their vulnerable essence, so unlike later clichés of round-eyed, tearful urchins sold to tourists by street artists in Montmartre. Other of her paintings are visceral, tactile, closely cropped compositions. One focuses on a small child in a red dress fiercely clutching a struggling cat. (We do not see the girl’s face, everything is said in the force of her clenched arm), another zooms in on a baby’s head suckling at its mother’s breast, taken from Paula’s daily observations of Worpswede peasants. Influenced by the progressive ideas on education by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, this was the era of the child. With their matt surfaces, their textured paint and tonal compositions, Modersohn-Becker’s paintings are exercises not only in innovative ways to handle her medium but in empathy, compassion and new ways of seeing. Dead at the age of 32 from an embolism, six weeks after the birth of her daughter, one cannot help but wonder what she might have become had she lived for another 30 years.

Among the works of artists that make up the main focus of this show are those by artists such as Erma Bossi and a beautiful, intense (and, for the time, daring) study of a young girl, Beta Naked, by Otilie Reylaender, who also spent time in Worpswede. It has taken more than a century to acknowledge what these women brought to Modernism. To accept how the masculinised gaze of Gauguin and Picasso was given an alternative focus in these radical self-portraits and nudes that explore intimacy and self-hood from the inside out. Despite the many personal difficulties faced – grief, poverty and rejection – this exhibition re-evaluates (and not before time) the role of these female artists to create a (necessarily) revisionist history of Modernism.

Making Modernism: Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter and Marianne Werefkin – Royal Academy of Arts 12 November 2022 – 12 February 2023

Brain Forest Quipu, Cecilia Vicuña, Tate Modern, Turbine Hall

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall is a notoriously difficult place to fill. Sponsored first by Unilever and since 2015 by Hyundai, there have been some stunning commissions. Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds made of individually sculpted and painted seed husks. The Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project that had people lying on their backs to experience a huge sun rising out of a mist as if in a South London Nordic winter. Other commissions have been less successful. Rachel Whiteread’s sugar-cube Arctic installation, for instance, that made me think of Iceland packaging and Tino Sehgal’s pretentious choreographed encounters. This year the commission has gone to the Chilean artist, poet and activist Cecilia Vicuña. The simplicity of her Brain Forest Quipu is both moving and strangely beautiful.

Hanging at each end of the Turbine hall are two mobile cascades of knotted rope, mesh and plant fibres that stir softly in the air currents like strips of discarded bark. Interspersed with these are bits of bleached bone and river-worn glass collected from along the banks of the Thames by women from local Latin American communities. This mud larking extends Vicuña’s practice of using found, non-art materials, which she refers to as precarios or precious objects. Like the thick fronds or vines of some great jungle or rain forest, the trailing floor-to-ceiling ribbons are interspersed with natural sounds: water and birdsong, guitars and human voices, including that of the artist. These ghost-like apparitions create a threnody, a torrent of tears to the damage being done to our natural habitat that leaves coral reefs bleached and the bark of trees white with the ash of deliberate forest fires. The sonic element, directed by the Columbian composer Ricardo Galio, weaves the indigenous music of several regions together with a series of deliberate silences. The soft sounds drift through the cathedral vault of the Turbine Hall as you move through the space, creating moments of stillness, haikus of contemplation amongst the busy chatter. There is something shamanic about the work. It’s rather like listening to the lament of the world, to the voices of the rainforests that we’re busy destroying and to the animals and indigenous people who inhabit them.

Traditionally the people of the Andes didn’t write but wove meaning into their textiles and knotted cords to be read, one imagines, almost like braille. Five thousand years ago they created conceptual poems with their quipu or knots that reflected both the measurements of the body and the spirit of the cosmos. These physical song lines were banished by the Spanish conquerors, along with the ceque – sightlines that connected all the communities in the Andes. Like ghostly spirits risen from the dead Vicuña’s forms create eulogies not only to the destruction of our natural world but to the variety of cultures that inhabit it.

Now 74, since the late 1960s she has created poems, paintings and sculptures that explore alternative systems of knowledge, using the wealth of tradition to be found in her indigenous heritage. At 18 her poetry was published in Mexico’s El Corno Emplumando and at 23 she had two exhibitions at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago. From the Escuela de Bellas Artes, Universidad de Chile, she found her way, with the aid of a British scholarship, to the Slade School of Art. After the right wing military coup against Salvador Allende in 1973 she became a founding member of Arts for Democracy whilst living in exile in London and working in a cold studio in Stephney. Now she divides her time between Chile and New York and was, at the 59th Venice Biennale, awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.

Of these heart rending works she has written: ‘the Earth is a brain forest and the quipu embraces all its interconnections.’ Using her poetic sensibilities of silence and sound and her visual acuity as an artist she has created sculptures that seem to sing of depletion and bereavement. At once both fragile and monumental each knot in these quipu installations speaks of blood and grief. Her original quipu sculpture was created in 2006, the year that Michelle Bachelet became the first female president of Chile.

Never didactic, her work lacks self-importance and hubris, gently mirroring all that has been lost and all that might further be lost if we fail to pay attention to this fragile web that is our world. Beautiful, ghostly and melancholy her work shows us that we can choose to be a part of the warp and weft of things, spinners and weavers rather than destroyers. In these sculptures Vicuña not only references the work of indigenous people but also of women with their traditional skills of weaving, knitting and sewing. There is also a nod to the netted and pendulous structures of the late Eva Hesse. Vicuña’s fragile materials echo our ephemeral existence and the vulnerability of our ecosystems. In a world dominated by technology and global greed she gives voice to the beleaguered Earth, to its flora, fauna and people.

Ai Weiwei Receives Praemium Imperiale 2022 Award From Lord Patten

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

Yesterday I battled through the streets of London thronged with the Queen’s mourners to make my way to Asia House, where Lord Patten of Barnes was announcing the recipients of the Praemium Imperiale Awards. Asia House stepped into the breach when it became apparent it was not possible to hold it, as planned, at the ICA due to the vast crowds gathering in the Mall. The prize worth £500,000 has been awarded annually since 1989 to honour those working in the categories of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Music and Theatre/Film, fields of achievement not recognised by the Nobel Prize.

The list is selected by six International Advisors. This year they included Hilary Rodham Clinton, Lamberto Dini (former Prime Minister of Italy), Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, one-time President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Christopher Patten, the last British governor to Hong Kong, and Jean-Pierre Raffin, one-time Prime Minister of France, and founder of the centre-right party UM. Past Laureates have included painters such as Cy Twombly and Anslem Kiefer, sculptors like Anthony Caro, Rebecca Horn and Christo & Jeanne-Claude. While the architects have included Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers, and Zaha Hadid, music has thrown up such names as Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein. Among those nominated for theatre and film have been Athol Fugard, Martin Scorsese and Judi Dench. There is also a grant for young and up-and-coming artists. This year it has been awarded to the Kronberg Academy Foundation – a cultural organisation offering advanced training to exceptionally gifted young musicians.

Those nominated for this year’s individual awards include the Italian painter Giulio Paolini who has lived most of his life in Turin. In his work composed of a range of media, including painting, photography, and sculpture, he creates poetic, introspective spaces, often turning his hand to playful and through-provoking theatre and opera sets.

The Japanese partnership of Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA) is this year’s nominee for architecture. Fluid lyrical buildings full of light and movement, such as the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa (2004), are their hallmark.

Renowned for combining expressive originality with a clarity and precision, the Polish-born Krystian Zimerman has been nominated for music, in recognition of the new heights to which he has taken piano performances. Combining innate talent with bravura technical skills he unlocks new meaning in the works of the great composers.

Wim Wenders has long been considered one of the most important post-war cinematographers. A director, producer, photographer and writer, his films such as Paris Texas and Wings of Desire defined the mood of the age. While his documentaries, including his Oscar-nominated Buena Vista Social Club, have taken him to a wider audience.

Most of the nominees were not able to attend the ceremony, but the activist, artist and filmmaker Ai Weiwei, winner of the award for sculpture, was in conversation with Lord Pattern discussing migration and freedom of expression. The son of a renowned dissident poet Ai Qing, denounced by the Communist regime, the Chinese artist’s early years were marked by hardship. Now one of the world’s most prominent advocates of human rights, he was detained in 2011 and held in secret detention for 81 days after gathering the names of more than 5,000 children who had died after the collapse of corrupt and faulty building work, which he then integrated into a powerful series of artworks.

The Japan Art Association, under the honorary patronage of His Imperial Highness Prince Hitachi, younger brother of the Emperor Emeritus of Japan, is Japan’s oldest cultural foundation. Previously known as Ryuchikai, it was founded in 1879, just as Japan, which had largely been closed to the outside world, was beginning to open its doors to western cultural influence. The Praemium Imperiale Awards remain unique in their recognition of five of the major arts, while its list of past Laureates reads like a Who’s Who in the arts of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Words and photos Sue Hubbard ©Artlyst 2022

Carolee Schneemann – Breaking Artistic Boundaries At The Barbican

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The so-called swinging 60s didn’t really get going until the Summer of Love in 1967, when thousands of young people in an eclectic mix of hippie gear converged on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to enjoy hallucinogenic drugs, sex and music against a background of anti-Vietnam War rhetoric. Until then, America and Britain, both recovering from the effects of war, were largely conservative, hidebound and patriarchal societies. This makes the work of the American artist Carolee Schneemann (1939-2019), now on show at the Barbican in the first major survey and the first show since her death, all the more remarkable. For before Feminism was even a thing, she was breaking artistic and social boundaries.

Before Feminism was even a thing, she was breaking artistic and social boundaries.

Born to a doctor and his wife in rural Pennsylvania in the 1930s, she had a conventional upbringing. Her parents wanted her to become a typist. But being able to draw ‘before I could speak,’ in 1952 she gained a full scholarship to Bard College in Upstate New York, only to be expelled two years later for ‘moral turpitude’. The college had no life models, so she made bold paintings of her own naked body. In 1954 she attended Columbia University and the New School for Social Research at a time when New York was a bubbling cauldron of new ideas. Work from this period shows the influence of both French post-Impressionism and American Abstract Expressionism (that mainly male movement of high modernism). Hovering between figuration and abstraction paintings such as Aria Duetto (Cantata No.78): Yellow Ladies c 1960-1 disrupt the surface of the canvas with rich gestural brush marks, displaying a visual panache that has all the confidence of de Kooning. Despite her later performative work, Schneemann always referred to herself as a painter.

As a child, she came across the term ‘gestalt’ in an art class. It was to become a ’60s’ buzzword, loosely referring to a unified whole that was more than the sum of its parts. Along with ‘happening’ – first introduced by the artist Allan Kaprow in 1959 to describe the theatricality of visual experiences that invited the viewer to be a participant as much as a viewer – it became a hallmark of the time. In 1962 to mark her emergence into New York City society, Schneemann hosted a ‘debutante party’ in her 21 Street loft. Later, she recalled ‘we celebrated anything/everything’ with ‘100 sweating rocking streaming rapturous stamping flying artists’ flitting between ‘rambling lofts’. Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol were all friends, and their influence can be seen in the introduction of kinetic elements, the incorporation of found objects and the performative elements in her work.

Cartesian philosophy had long taken (the very male) view that there was a split between mind and body. Long before the phrase was taken up as a feminist mantra, the personal became, for Schneemann, the political. Using her own body, she challenged the binary view of reason versus instinct, the Apollonian versus the Dionysian. Just to look at the titles of her books displayed at the Barbican: Jung, Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich, Wilhelm Reich and The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, is to be presented with a reading list of a sexual warrior from the ’60s. For Schneemann, engagement with the body linked to global politics, to female exploitation and the environment, and challenged how the lives and bodies of women were perceived. Her understanding that painting was a dynamic and physical act lead her to question whether she could be both image and image maker? As early as 1962 (a year before sexual intercourse was invented according to the poet Philip Larkin), she staged a performance in her studio among works in progress. Painting on her body, she became an element in her paintings. It was to be a turning point. Although conforming to the American stereotype of being young, thin, white and beautiful, she challenged the conventionally ascribed role of wife and muse, realigning herself as a point of action and knowledge—an active maker rather than a passive subject. A 1963 gelatin silver print from Eye Body shows her lying naked on the studio floor as two snakes slither over her. She might be a Minoan goddess.

Carolee Schneemann, Still from Interior Scroll Peformance, 1975-77

Being a founder member of the Judson Dance Theatre – a group of choreographers, dancers, visual artists and musicians – allowed her to meld different art forms. Improvised and collaborative works were performed to experimental soundtracks in immersive, multi-media events. 1964 saw the debut Meat Joy in Paris. Untrained dancers, clad in feather and fur-trimmed underwear, tangled together in heaps of twisted limbs. As they rolled semi-naked around the stage, torn paper, raw fish, chickens, and hot dogs rained down, and buckets of paint spilt beneath them in a Bacchanalian orgy of movement and material. Yves Klein also used the female body, dragged across a flat canvas, to produce an image. But, here, for the first time, was challenging visual and physical theatre being created by a woman. Described by Schneemann as an ‘erotic rite,’ Meat Joy seems to hark back to an age of innocence before AIDS, when young people were throwing off the repressive shackles of an earlier generation in favour of free sexual expression.

Growing to artistic maturity during the era of Abstract Expressionism that promoted the myth of the male genius, Schneeman was one of the first to claim the female body as central to the painter’s process. No longer passive but carnal and erotic, it was shown as orgasmic, angry and sometimes broken. Long before such debates were common currency, her work challenged what it means to inhabit a gendered body and claim sexual freedom of expression, reminding us of what a pivotal era the 1960s were. Many other artists are echoed in her work – Eva Hesse, de Kooning, Warhol, and Yves Klein. But well ahead of the game, Schneemann’s groundbreaking practices paved the way for later female artists such as Mary Kelly, Tracy Emin and Sarah Lucas, who would focus on the female body and what living within that body means to be alive.

Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics, Barbican Art Gallery 8 September 2022 – 8 January 2023

Milton Avery, American Colourist

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

After years of painting romantic landscapes, the American painter Milton Avery produced, in 1945, Swimmers and Sunbathers. Divided into four horizontal areas, this small painting is a masterpiece of poetic nuance. In the distance, subtle olive green marks suggest a wood. In front of this is a strip, made up of pinky-grey shapes, that indicates the rocky edge of a lake. An intense black-blue stripe dominates the centre of the work, while the foreground consists of an area of Germolene pink. Here, the outlines of two female swimmers sit on the grey and beige pools of their towels, their backs to the viewer, looking out across the navy lake. The whole painting is jolted into life by a couple of vibrant red strokes set against the dark blue water. These appear to be abstract marks but a closer look suggests they are the limbs of a swimmer. All the zones are flattened, except for a few scratched marks in the trees. It is colour that gives form and emotion to the whole.

Or take a painting made the following year of two figures lying on a beach. Two elongated female forms (think Matisse cut-outs) recline on the mud-coloured sand. Each is propped up on her elbow facing a different direction. The further figure looks away from the viewer, the one in front towards us. Their jutted hips are like hills in the landscape and the palette limited to a few shades of earth colours. The far woman is blonde and painted in cool creamy tones. The near figure is dark and executed in hotter terracotta colours. So much is suggested – the languid ambience of the beach, the women’s stylish swimwear – by the bravura line of the drawing and blocks of flat colour. Imbued with gentle humour, the painting is a witty social observation.

Milton Avery, Two Figures on Beach. Milton Avery, oil on canvas, 30 by 40 inches, (76.2 by 101.6 cm)

Milton Avery is not much known in this country. His entry into the art world did not follow a conventional trajectory. Born in 1885 in Altmar, New York, his family settled in Hartford Connecticut, where he would leave school at sixteen for a blue-collar job in a factory. In order to improve his earning potential he enrolled in an evening class to learn commercial lettering but soon switched to drawing. After his father’s early death he became the financial mainstay of his family, only able to attend art school in the evenings. As a result, he was late to the table of American art, not painting full time until he was 40. Whenever he could, he and his wife, Sally, – ten years younger and his greatest fan who supported him through her work as an illustrator for the New York Times – would take vacations in various rural locations. He liked to work outside, using what he’d done as notes for paintings to be worked up later in the studio.

The first group at the RA, made between 1910 and 1945, consists of lyrical landscapes. There are deep wooded valleys, clear rivers overhung with leafy trees, tiny, dotted cows and sheep – depicted with no more than a flick of the brush – set in the Connecticut landscape that he loved. Looking at these early paintings one would not automatically predict the flattening, thinning and simplification of colour to come. They are romantic in feel, their dominant influence the work of American Impressionists such as John Henry Twachtman and Ernest Lawson. From the 1930s there is a shift from naturalism to something more daring: flat planes of arbitrary, pared-down colour and greater distortions of reality. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Avery is seen by many as the bridge between American Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism. A movement over which he had a huge influence. Yet, although he counted Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman among his close friends, he was never affiliated to any particular artistic group but followed his own aesthetic inclination to find innovative ways to simplify nature through the balance of colour and form.

What is evident is that before he found his mature style he looked at a great deal of art. By 1926 he was living in New York and working full time as an artist. There are echoes in his theatre paintings of Degas, and of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in his 1933 Chariot Race, circus painting. It was while living in the city that he began to paint crowd scenes at the beach such as Seaside and Coney Island. (1931). A man of few words, he was an observer rather than a participant, sitting quietly on the edge of things sketching scenes and people that would later be worked into paintings in his studio.

Milton Avery, March in Babushka, 1944. Oil on canvas, 34 x 26 inches. Private collection. © 2021 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

But it is his portraits that are his truly innovative work. Paintings such as Husband and Wife (1945) and his daughter, March in Babushka, (1944). Here all sentimentality is stripped away. Features are minimal, the paint thin. Form and colour express everything. It was this breakthrough that was to establish him as a leading American colourist. One who was significantly to influence the next generation of painters to understand how colour could be used to create a sense of the sublime. In his late paintings, many of them executed during summers in Cape Cod in the company of Rothko and Gottleib, the work becomes larger and more abstract. Black Sea, (1959), painted on the diagonal, consists of just three colours. A triangle of black sea in the top left hand corner, frilled by a ribbon of flat white surf, then a completely flat area of sand. In its pared simplicity it combines something of both Rothko and Barnett Newman’s sensibility, leading the art critic of the day, Clement Greenberg to describe these paintings as ‘a late flowering.’ Yet, despite this move from representation to greater abstraction, these late works predominantly fulfil Milton Avery’s lifelong, personal quest to capture what he described as ‘the essence of nature.’

Milton Avery, Husband and Wife, 1945. Oil on canvas, 85.7 x 111.8 cm. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Mr and Mrs Roy R. Neuberger, Photo: Allen Phillips/Wadsworth Atheneum, © 2022 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2022
Milton Avery, Black Sea, 1959. Oil on canvas, 127 x 172.1 cm. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. © 2022 Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2022

Walter Sickert at Tate Britain

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

Who was Walter Sickert? Go to Tate Britain and you will find numerous self-portraits of this one-time actor turned painter in their current retrospective. In Juvenile Lead, painted in 1907,  he wears a bowler hat, wing collar and owl glasses. Elsewhere he poses as different biblical figures, including Abraham. In the Front at Hove, he is an elderly paramour seated on a bench chatting to a seemingly disinterested young woman in a little cloche hat. The surtitle Turpe Senex Miles Turpe Senilis Amour translates from the Latin as ‘An old soldier is a wretched thing, so also is senile love.’ This may have an autobiographical resonance but, on the whole, none of these images really tell us about the man. They simply offer multiple masks and personae that bring to mind the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa’s numerous ‘heteronyms’ adopted to explore  his response to the world, whilst offering emotional distance. As his first biographer rather despairingly asked when writing on Sickert: ‘Is there…no fixed point, no common denominator, that we may take hold of and say, “this is the real man”?

Turpe Senex Miles Turpe Senilis Amour, 1930, Oil on canvas, 63.5 × 76.2 cm

Sickert continues to remain unknowable, despite his self-portraits and the investigations of the American crime writer, Patricia Cornwell, who was convinced, on the ‘evidence’ of his Camden Town paintings of men and nudes in impoverished north London rooms, that Sickert was Jack-the-Ripper. To this effect she spent £2m buying up 31 of his paintings, a number of letters and his writing desk, even destroying one of his paintings in a desperate hunt for ‘clues.’ But the real Sickert has continued to remain as elusive as ever. Regarded by many as the finest British painter between Turner and Bacon, Sickert certainly had a fascination with the notorious murders. But Cornwell seems (remarkably for a writer) to have lacked the imagination to consider that what Sickert was most likely interested in was how paintings could tell stories and suggest multiple narratives. He was a man who refused to be pigeonholed, regularly changing his sartorial appearance as well as his accommodation. In 1893 he gave up a luxurious live-in studio in Glebe Place, Chelsea, to take a small room at 12 Cheyne Walk, one of six artisans’ dwellings in Milton Chambers. This deliberate life-style choice would continue for the rest of his life as he sought out similar modest studios.

As a young man, Sickert’s original aim was to be an actor (a profession of dissembling and disguise.) Never progressing beyond small parts, he took himself off to the Slade. He didn’t stay there long, becoming studio assistant to James Whistler, an artist who was to have a considerable impact on his style. Though the influence of the theatre, with its layers of artifice and fantasy,  would continue to loom large in his work. It was probably due to his meeting with Degas – a great ballet lover –  that he developed an interest in the music hall and popular entertainment. Tiring, also, of what he regarded as the limitations of Whistler’s alla primer (wet-on-wet) approach – where the pigments are laid down in one sitting – his meeting with Degas lead him into new painterly experimentations. The Laundry Shop, one of a number of small, dark intense paintings executed in France, uses of a grid-like composition that delineates individual components, unlike Whistler’s flatter style. Deciding, in 1898, that he couldn’t stand another winter in London – it was ‘too dark’ –  Sickert decamped to Dieppe. There he became au fait with the latest French movements of the Impressionists and the Fauves, along with artists such as Camille Pissarro.  Historic continental destinations were ideal settings for his internationalism, and his theatrical and symbolist leanings. In Venice, he painted the looming façade of St. Marks at sunset as if it were a stage set.

The Laundry Shop, Dieppe, France, 1885, oil on canvas, 50.2 x 39.4 cm

But it was the music hall that provided Sickert with his most distinctive vocabulary with which to observe modern urban life. At the turn of the twentieth century there were more than 300 hundred such venues in London. Sickert visited Collin’s Music Hall in Islington, The Bedford in Camden, the Oxford in Oxford Street, and the Middlesex in Dury Lane on a regular basis to watch popular female performers such as Marie Lloyd and Minnie Cunningham strutting their stuff and singing songs full of innuendo and double entendres. No doubt the music hall appealed because it provided a space where entrenched Victorian concepts of class were, to some extent, eroded. Though with their predominantly male and working class punters, the ‘respectable’ middle-classes largely considered them to be places of immorality, vice and prostitution. But for Sickert, all the world was a stage. Along with the female turns, he painted the musicians in the orchestra pit and the bowler hatted beaux in their boxes. In Noctes Ambroisianae, a bunch of working class, cloth-capped lads can be seen gawping and, no doubt, cat-calling up in the gods. Sickert loved the complex rococo architecture of the music hall and the relationship created between audience and performer. Mirrors placed at different angles allowed him to catch the complex perspectives, making visible what might not have been seen with the naked eye. There is something very modern about these paintings that ask who is doing the looking and who the watching? Ostensibly they privilege the male gaze, but often the viewpoint is more ambiguous, suggesting multiple scenarios and alternative narratives.

But it is, without doubt, his nudes and Camden Town paintings that have kept Sickert in the limelight. He wasn’t interested in painting ‘Summer Exhibition’ style nudes  – ‘vacuous images’ as he called them – but naked, mostly working women. Women with imperfect bodies and pubic hair, often forced by poverty to make their living through sex work. Their sickly, post-coital bodies, lie on brass beds in seedy rooms, exhausted among the crumpled sheets. In The Shoe with the Rose, the outline of the slumped figure is barely discernible except for a foot and a flung arm. Beneath the bed, centre stage, is a single high-heeled shoe with a cross bar. Has this been flung off in a fit of passion or violently removed? It’s hard to know. The lining is a deep rose pink, so it’s impossible not to read it as a gash or a wound, or the fleshy contours of an available female vulva. A number of these interior paintings set up scenarios and conversations. The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do for Rent, 1908 is full or Lawrentian tribulation and angst. Is the seated man on the bed next to a naked woman a punter, a desperate husband pimping his wife for a few shillings or a serial killer? Perhaps, Sickert is saying. It doesn’t matter. That for those in this social class with few financial choices, prostitution is its own form of murder.

The Rose Shoe, c.1904, oil on canvas, 38 x 46 cm
The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do about the Rent?, c.1908,
oil on canvas, 25.6 × 35.6 cm

In his final years Sickert continued to be attracted to the theatre, painting Peggy Ashcroft and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Queen Isabella in Edward II, along with the high-kicking Tiller Girls. He also drew on the cinema, film and photography, as can be seen in the painting taken from the poster of the gangster film Bullets or Ballots, starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Blondell, where Sickert’s Edward G. bears an uncanny resemblance to George Galloway.

Sickert lived in a time of great change and social turmoil. As a painter he is a bridge between numerous worlds – between the social constraints of the 19th century and the technological changes and comparative social freedoms of the 20th, between covert sexuality and apparent public morality and the strictures of English painting and French Impressionism, between the simulacrum and reality. His identification with Jack the Ripper has never completely gone away and will continue to fascinate. He lived in two of the houses where he claimed the Ripper had lived and it’s been suggested that some of the Ripper’s letters, especially the one where the phrase ‘catch me if you can’ is written in pencil and washed over with a brush stroke of red ink, is the work of a painter’s hand. But there is no proof and we may never know the truth.  What we can deduce from the paintings he left is that this was a man who liked to tell stories and use paint to create potent, often ambiguous scenarios of early 20th century life. A painter who not only broke new ground but who, it seems to me, had great empathy for the plight of the poor, especially women.

Theaster Gates – Black Chapel Serpentine Pavilion

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The latest Serpentine Pavilion hunkers within the grounds of the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens like a dark grain silo transported from the prairies of the USA. But walk inside, and the eye is naturally drawn up to a circle of light. The open central dome frames the blue sky and scudding white clouds like a section of a Renaissance painting. It also brings to mind the Pantheon in Rome, a temple built by Hadrian, then turned into a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs, where the light spilling from the central oculus invites us to contemplate the heavenly and the spiritual.

A sacred space for the 21st century

Built by the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, a one-time urban planner turned artist, in collaboration with the award-winning British architect Sir David Adjaye OBE, Black Chapel sits somewhere between sculpture and architecture. A sacred space for the 21st century, it encourages multiple meanings, uses and interpretations. Though the initial catalyst, Gates claims, was deeply personal, for the building is a homage to his late father – a skilled roofer – and draws on memories of the years spent attending church as a young boy. ‘ I wouldn’t,’ he said, ‘make a chapel unless I liked chapels.’

Theaster Gates © Sue Hubbard

Spare and minimal, with a severe beauty, it provides a space where in contrast to the isolation experienced during the recent pandemic, people can come together as they have always done in village squares and churches. Drawing inspiration from numerous architectural sources, from the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, to the Musgum mud huts of the Cameroon and Kasubi Tombs of Kampala, Uganda, from the industrial kilns of Stoke-on-Trent to the onion domes of Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, its circularity echoes the rituals of voodoo and of Roda de capoeira, a circular formation used in a number of Afro-Brazilian dance forms. Outside, the sonorous tones of a bronze bell salvaged from St. Laurence, a landmark Catholic Cathedral that once stood in Chicago’s South Side, calls audiences to performances and events.

During their recent talk at the Serpentine, Sir David Adjaye suggested that it takes thousands of years to build a city and that later buildings interweave themselves with the palimpsest of that past history. Both he and Gates wanted Black Chapel to create the experience of being emerged in a space without the constraint of the language of structural engineering, for each believes that architecture is more than the sum of its technicalities and ideas, that it can have a profound effect on how we experience the world. We all yearn, Gates suggested, for meaning and ritual, which despite the loss of confidence in organised religion, is contained deep within our DNA.

Taking a cue from the Rothko Chapel that houses fourteen of Mark Rothko’s paintings, Gates created seven new tar paintings for the space in celebration of his father’s roofing skills, using tar and a blow torch to create black seams in the shimmering silvery tabla rasa. Success, he suggested half-jokingly, would be if you could stand beneath them and they didn’t let in the rain.

Black Chapel forms part of The Question of Clay, a multi-institution project that has included exhibitions at the Whitechapel, White Cube and the V&A. Since its inception in 2000, the Serpentine Pavilion Commission has produced some extraordinarily innovative works from the inaugural design by Dame Zaha Hadid to those created by Janya Ishigami and Olafur Eliasson. These dreamlike structures have, over the last 20 years, become as much part of London’s summer season as Wimbledon, allowing innovative structures to be enjoyed and experienced by the many rather than just the few in the art world.

Cornelia Parker: Cold Dark Matter 1991

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

In her 1994 essay The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity, the feminist art historian, Linda Nochlin, cites the French Revolution, and the guillotine in particular, as the symbol that finally severed the stranglehold of ancient autocratic power and ushered in an era of radical, more fluid politics and culture. Fragmentation has become the very hallmark of modernity, symbolising the destruction of the prevailing orders of church and state, the hierarchies of traditional privilege in favour of a greater diversity and inclusivity from the margins. Although written in 1994, before the grip of the digital age, Nochlin’s proposition that the fragment expresses the flattening and democratisation of meaning still appears to hold true.

Making an artwork is like throwing a pebble into a still pond. The artist may not be able to predict where the ripples will lead – SH

In 1991, just before Nochlin wrote her essay and a year before Damien Hirst exhibited his iconoclastic shark in formaldehyde, the artist Cornelia Parker exploded a garden shed with the help of the British army. She’d contacted them for advice and was invited to the Army School of Ammunition, where they demonstrated the potential of various explosives by blowing up a table and a car. In the end, she decided on plastic explosives as these seemed to provide an ‘archetypal explosion’ without pyrotechnics or special effects. Blowing up a shed was something she’d long wanted to do.

Making an artwork is like throwing a pebble into a still pond. The artist may not be able to predict where the ripples will lead. Cold Dark Matter, as Cornelia Parker’s 1991 piece was called, made connections between the world of science, space and the everyday. After the explosion, she collected and suspended the blackened, twisted objects from transparent wires in the Tate Gallery. These were lit with a single light bulb that hung in the centre of the installation. The apparently floating debris might have been the result of the Big Bang, a terrorist attack or be a 3D model demonstrating chaos theory. The dramatic shadows on the walls added both drama and a sense of disembodiment. Boundaries were blurred. Edges dissipated. Underlying Yeats’ famous quote from his poem The Second Coming that: ‘Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold.’ Here, then, was a visual metaphor for the political, spiritual and cultural decay of a world constantly being altered by violence that, through its reconfiguring, signalled the possibility of regeneration. For Cornelia Parker, the world was constantly being bombarded with images of violence from action films and comic strips, along with relentless, never-ending reports of conflict and war. Exploding a garden shed was a simple yet effective visual embodiment of the end of history. A history defined by capitalism and industrialism, where issues such as colonialism, global warming and traditional gender roles were beginning to take centre stage.

Walking around this three-dimensional sculpture, the viewer became an integral element of the work. The charred debris mirrored Baudrillard’s premise that no matter how valuable an object is, its principal value resides in how it mirrors and is an object of prestige in a capitalist society. The industrialism of modernity tended to treat people as herds, as a means of production. Postmodernity shattered that hegemony giving – at least theoretically – a greater voice to diverse positions and to the marginalised. The centre was no longer holding. Suspended in the gallery like the bones of some prehistoric fossil, the charred and buckled remains of the shed functioned as a collection of memento mori, tokens of death and of past lives. It represented a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints, each as valid as the other. Before being hung up, they’d been laid on the gallery floor like the shards collected from an archaeological dig or the detritus found in a mass grave. Suspended and lit, they threw off the aura of death to embrace a new existence outside their previous category. They might have been meteorites or planetary bodies—new worlds.

The very mundanity of a garden shed – that ubiquitous image of suburban England embodying the fantasy of a private, secret and inviolate space – being blown up suggests the destruction of class systems and historic hierarchies, the opening up of new spaces and possibilities. Cornelia Parker has long been fascinated by artistic processes and the transmogrification of materials, flattening and stretching them to test their physical as well as metaphorical limits. In one case, she stretched two wedding rings into a thin 40-foot wire, changing not only the form but the meaning from one of containment into one capable of delineating a border between two spaces.

The middle of three sisters, she grew up on a Cheshire smallholding and, like Hirst, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha and a number of other artists, was raised a Catholic. She ‘went to High Mass every week’ where the one-and-a-half-hour mass conducted in Latin gave her a good deal of time to contemplate the Stations of the Cross. It’s no surprise, therefore, that her work evokes reliquaries and votive offerings. She’s said that due to her Catholic upbringing, ‘I grew up thinking that Armageddon was just around the corner – now I know it is, with global warming and all. I can keep it at bay by doing the work. It’s sort of reverse sympathetic magic. I’m always doing it, so it doesn’t happen to me.’

She has squashed a whole brass band of instruments, stretched lead bullets into wire to make Spirograph drawings, and fired the pearls of a necklace through a shotgun. Despite its apparent violence, her work is full of pathos, ritual and renewal. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Out of death and destruction comes resurrection. Out of the wreckage of her apocalyptic pieces, to use Yeats’ phrase, a ‘terrible beauty is born.’

London Art Fair 2022: A New Seriousness

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the art world. Fairs have been cancelled, galleries closed and artists confined to their studios. The London Art Fair, which was supposed to have taken place in January, finally opened its doors on the 20th of April. The private view was not as crowded as in previous years (perhaps because it has oddly coincided with the Venice Biennale), but there was a sense of relief that it was finally happening at all. Whether it is actually a slimmed-down version of previous fairs, I’m not sure. But there seems to be a new seriousness. More beauty and less frivolity with the lower floor mainly catering to British Modernism – and contemporary work that sits happily beside it – and the upstairs showcasing younger, newer galleries.

There seems to be a new seriousness. More beauty and less frivolity.

On entering the fair, I was delighted to see that this year’s Museum Partner is the wonderful Women’s Art Collection, Europe’s largest collection of art by women that is normally housed in the Brut modernist Murray Edwards College (previously New Hall) in Cambridge. The collection contains some 550 works by such iconic artists as Barbara Hepworth, Cindy Sherman and Faith Ringgold. On display at the fair is a rather strange Maggie Hambling, Hebe and her Serpent, 1979, a vibrant Eileen Cooper of two flagrant dancing women, Perpetual Spring, 2016 and an interesting early Tracey Emin (interesting because she is not the subject), a coloured lithograph from 1986, entitled Sixty A Day Woman based on a character met in Margate who reputedly smoked 6o cigarettes a day.

At Purdy Hicks, I discovered a couple of floral archival pigment prints by Kathrin Linkersdorff. The transparent Les Fleurs du Mal beauty has a sense of entropy about it. At Rebecca Hossack, best known for showing aboriginal art, there’s an abstract version of the Thames – part map, part abstract painting – by Barbara McFalane, London Cobalt, Teal and Emerald that, despite her Scottish name, shows the influence of aboriginal art in its mark-making. The Zuleika Gallery has a whole stand dedicated to the elegant minimal works on paper and sculptures by Nigel Hall, while Advanced Graphics has a delightful little Craigie Aitchison print, Crucifixion with Dog 2003, created in his bold colours and naïve style. There are Winifred Nicholsons, Sickerts and Prunella Cloughs to be had, and some real delights among the plethora of the mediocre. One gem was an early painting by my late friend Gillian Ayres. An uncharacteristically small work dated 1957, painted in ripolin on a small vertical strip of board in her early tachist style.

Tiffanie Delune, Ed Cross Fine Art

But it’s the upper floor that gives the fair its pizzazz. Now in its 17th year, Art Projects brings together international ventures – curated solo shows and group exhibitions. Domobaal has a fascinating series of unique photographic transfers on lime logs by Alice Wilson depicting woods, paths through forests, anonymous sheds and warehouses, alongside some equally enigmatic oil on wood works by Fiona Finnegan, including When the Levee Breaks, 2020, a black feathery eruption set against what might be a rosy sunset. Over at Ed Cross Fine Art, Tiffanie Delune uses warm colours to create exotic, playful images that depict her roots and family memories, while MADEINBRITALY artists have been fashioning their own ‘Hortus Conclusus,’ ‘an enclosed garden’ that functions as a space in which to ferment new ideas. At IMT Gallery, collaboration is the name of the game. Works by Paola Ciarska, Frankie Robers and Orphan Drift (Ranu Mukerjee and Maggie Roberts) are housed within a scaffolding structure that functions as a physical metaphor for the collaboration required to stage an exhibition.

Topical issues, especially Brexit, followed by the Covid pandemic, along with the global climate emergency, have informed Rodrigo Orrantia’s curatorship of Photo50. The first work encountered is that of a small sailboat with dark sails, which appears to be heading to the shores of some utopian paradise. This forms part of a powerful installation, Journey, by Esther Teichmann and is set alongside Alexander Mourant’s mesmeric A Vertio Like Self, made, originally, as a Super 8 film of a silent voyage by sea out to an island.

The second aspect of the exhibition, following on from the theme of water as a liminal space, focuses on Borders. These can be interpreted as both geographical limits and the space between the flat world of photography and the three-dimensionality of the sculptural object.

In its fourth edition, Platform, curated by Candida Stevens, presents 10 galleries whose artists have created new work that explores the intersection between the visual and music. There’s work, here, that makes reference to the improvisations of jazz, with its destabilised, off-kilter imagery, along with that by figurative artists who represent the process of composition, both in musical and visual forms.

Alongside all these different elements, the fair is presenting a series of talks that range from Artistate: Art, Death & Legacy: Managing Artist Estates in the 21st Century, to what promises to be an interesting panel discussion on The Women’s Art Collection at Murray Edwards College – A ‘Feminist’ Curatorial Model’.

The London Art Fair may not have quite the international fizz of, say, Frieze, but it has, over the years, settled into its own format. One displaying works by well-known names, alongside a healthy display of new and experimental work.

London Art Fair 2022, Business Design Centre, Islington London N1, 21-24 April 2022

The Mechanics of Memory

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

Hughie O’Donoghue: Deep Water and the Architecture of Memory, Marlborough Gallery, London (10 November 2021 – 15 January 2022) and Hughie O’Donoghue: Original Sins, National Gallery of Ireland (12 March – 19 June 2022)

History painting was traditionally regarded as the highest form of Western painting in the hierarchy of genres that included portraits, scenes of everyday life, landscape, animal painting and still life. This hierarchy was based on the differences between art that ‘render[ed] visible the universal essence of things’ (imitare) and that which was mere ‘mechanical copying of particular appearances’ (ritrarre). In his De Pictura (About Painting) 1441, Alberti argued that (multi-figured) history painting was the highest of the genres because it required the most mastery. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries allegorical painting that took on religious, mythical, historical and allegorical subjects was valued above other forms of history painting. By the nineteenth century these categories had begun, with the new movements of Romanticism, Impressionism, Fauvism and Surrealism, to breakdown. For most of the twenntieth century and the current, history painting has barely existed within British art which has favoured the domestic and the familiar, the playful and the pop. Seriousness has long been de trop. Irony and iconoclasm the name of the game.

But towards the end of the twentieth century history painting took on a new lease of life, not in this country, but within German art with artists such as Georg Baselitz and Anslem Kiefer. In his powerful works Kiefer confronted German history and national identity, including the legacy of the Holocaust. His symbolic motifs and elemental landscapes use myth and archetype to provoke complex emotional and psychological effects. In this country the only artist working with similar gravitas is the painter Hughie O’Donoghue for whom history and cultural memory form the backdrop to his body of work. In an interview in 1989 – when I first met him – with Michael Phillipson for his show ‘Fires’ at Fabian Carlsson Gallery, he said: ‘We can’t escape history. Almost as soon as you pick up a paintbrush you place yourself in some kind of dialogue with tradition. It is important to understand the context in which one works…in many ways great paintings or great works of art have crystalised certain universal sensations of what it means to be human.’ After his first encounter with Georg Baselitz’s Model for a Sculpture at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1980, he remarked that: ‘To remain ignorant of the past is to remain always a child.’ Like Kiefer, O’Donoghue intermingles the mythic and the real, mixing events from history with a sense of personal guest.

Although younger than the German painter he, too, has dug deep into the cataclysmic imagery of the two World Wars in order to explore time and memory, travelling through the ravaged war-torn zones of Europe with the retreating forces during the Fall of France in 1940 and the crossing of the Rapido in the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino, following the wanderings of his soldier father, Daniel O’Donoghue. His trajectory has been different to many other contemporary artists, moving back from abstraction to figuration. His paintings grow in slow accretions, organically, like the alluvial layers left by a repeatedly flooding river. Whilst the paintings in his most recent exhibition ‘Deep Water and the Architecture of Memory’ do not directly refer to the great conflicts of the twentieth century; they do, through their lingering photographic traces and painterly accretions, emphasise the mechanics of memory and the passing of time. Painted in lockdown, that strange, discombobulated hiatus gave him the opportunity to plunge deeper into the recesses of memory, to draw on childhood recollections. One such image is that of the MV Plassy, a vessel wrecked in a storm off the Irish coast near Inisheer in 1960 that has been a recurring motif in his work for the past twenty years. Rising like some portentous Leviathan from the deep on a huge tarpaulin, rather than canvas, in Wake II, it seems to act as tragic witness to its own demise, its rusting hulk glowing phosphorescent with shades of yellow and red, worn away by time and the onslaught of the ocean.

Whilst O’Donoghue claims that it has no allegorical function and that the ‘ship is just a ship’ and not, as in previous work, a reference to the Little Ships of Dunkirk, it’s hard not to read the battered vessel as standing for some sort of grounded Ship of Fools or a reminder of those barely seaworthy craft that set sail across the Atlantic for the New World filled with impoverished Irish migrants. His use of silver Verdigris reflects the light, emphasising the god-like, tomb-like nature of the vessel. Corroded, decayed and skeletal, it conjures both the plague ship that haunts Nosfertau in the film by the German director F. W. Murnau, and the steamship hauled in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo over a steep hill though the rubber-rich Peruvian rain forest in an act that’s both gloriously idealistic and hubristic.

Hughie O’Donoghue, Wake II, mixed media on prepared tarpaulin 48,1-2 x 90,1-2in., 123 x 230 cm
Hughie O’Donoghue, Cargo I, 2021, mixed media on prepared sackcloth 39,3-4 x 28.5-8in., 101 x 73 cm
Hughie O’Donoghue, Creek (I), 2021, mixed media on prepared sandbags 77 x 74,1-2 x 6in., 193 x 189 x 15 cm
Hughie O’Donoghue, Prow, 2019, mixed media on prepared tarpaulin 96,3-4 x 118,3-4in, 245 x 302cm

As a graduate of Goldsmiths, O’Donoghue’s work has always been ‘knowing’, conscious of the debates around the death of painting, irony and populism. Whilst, in the past, his handling of paint has been influenced by the masters, especially Titian, Velasquez and El Greco, with its dark tonalities, its blacks and greys juxtaposed with dramatic flashes of primary colours, in this new body of work he has moved away from the immediate sensuality of paint and bravura impasto to work with a complex process of superimposed photographic images built up with layers of resin, acrylic and oil paint on surfaces such as sackcloth and sandbags, reminiscent of a map grid or those plaques of jade found covering certain ancient oriental figures.

Deptford Creek pulsates with history. Once the Royal Dockyard created by Henry VIII, it is where Queen Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake on the Golden Hind after his return from circumnavigating the globe in 1580. It is also situated between Hughie O’Donoghue’s Greenwich studio and a studio a fifteen-minute walk away that he commuted to daily during lockdown. The Creek triptych is the most urban of his recent paintings. Made on sandbags stuffed with newspapers printed during lockdown to form a time capsule, it depicts a scene at low tide, ‘like a cross section of the earth,’ full of stones, shards and flotsam, surrounded by a cityscape of old wharfs, industrial buildings and new tower blocks. It’s grid-like structure, similar to the staked sections of an archaeological dig, emphasise the historic palimpsest of the city, and we’re reminded of the great English literature set on the Thames from Bleak House, to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Archaeology here, of course, is not simply a plumbing of the city depths but a psychoanalytic metaphor for exploring the dark recesses of our shared histories. The sack, too, reaches back into O’Donoghue’s own personal history, His grandfather was a railwayman who shouldered such loads at the Oldham Road goods depot in Manchester for a living, the city where O’Donoghue grew up. The paint here is minimal, a resin glue that holds the sacks together in a technique reminiscent of Japanese kintisugi that uses gold to mend broken ceramics.

Much of O’Donoghue’s life, certainly before the pandemic, has been split between his home in Co. Mayo and Greenwich. Painted on individual sacks the ‘Cargo’ series create vistas of grey ocean that suggest journeys across the Irish sea, which during this period of confinement could only be imagined. There’s also a connection, here, to the sublime, to a sense of immersion and yearning, that oneness that Freud describes as an oceanic feeling.

To call O’Donoghue a modern history painter would not be quite accurate, even though history, memory, archaeology and the past all inform his work. It is not so much the recording of a particular event that interests him, as the metaphorical resonances: how history and a sense of place can tell us who we are and connect us to our collective unconscious. Through his powerful works he grapples not only with the use of new materials but how he can employ them to explore what it means to be human in this complex world.

Study of a Dog – After Francis Bacon

Ekphrastic Poetry

Dog 1952 Francis Bacon 1909-1992 Presented by Eric Hall 1952

Beyond the date palm
and ribbon of hot sand,
the electric zip of blue sea
and strip of burning highway
where cars black as ants
flow liquid in the heat,
and petrol fumes catch
in the throat like rags,
the midday sun bleaches
colour from the concrete boulevard,
and a patch of back-street dirt
a brindled dog,
sinews taut, elastic,
turns and turns
in its own shadow,
red-prick tongue hanging
from frilled chops,
chasing its own tail.
Flea ridden, the stink of gutter
clotted in its fetid fur.
It is, behind its black snout,
and milk-filmed eye,
behind its helmet of bone
and knowledge of the human,
returning to what is
vicious, taboo, feral,
to what is dangerous.

Francis Bacon: Birth Copulation And Death – Royal Academy

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

If there is one image that Bacon made his own above any other, it is the mouth contorted in a scream or grimace. It is not Munch’s shrill scream of terror. Bacon’s mouth is cavernous, the lips curled in a snarl to reveal rows of potentially castrating teeth. Sometimes it is a gaping black hole, at other times a fleshy orifice. It is always sexual and often animalistic and dangerous.

“Birth, Copulation and Death. That’s all the facts when you come down to brass tacks. Birth, copulation and death.” T.S. Eliot Sweeney Agonistes

In this exhibition at the Royal Academy, brilliantly curated by the art historian Michael Peppiatt, the first image the viewer encounters is Bacon’s monochromatic head I painted in 1948 in oil and tempera on board. Thin white perspectival lines suggest an enclosed space. A dock? A prison? A figure dominates, its thick white neck poking from a torn garment. The top of its head is missing. Its face seems to have been torn off and is hanging, flapping almost, like a ripped mask, the mouth open to reveal an array of teeth. But these are not human teeth – there is a huge, bared incisor on display – and yet the shape of the figure is human. The pink lips appear smeared with froth or saliva. It’s a terrifying, ambiguous image. Who or what is this? Man or beast?

Francis Bacon Head I 1948 Photo © Artlyst 2022

Born in 1909 to English parents in Dublin, the second of five children, Francis Bacon not only suffered asthma as a child but was beaten and abused by his sadistic, racehorse trainer father for whom he came to have inappropriate feelings. He also lived through some of the most turbulent events in history. The Irish Easter Rising. The First World War with its millions of dead in the mud of the trenches. The rise of Fascism and subsequent death camps. These were the backdrop that turned this one-time interior designer into a prophet of existential doom. As a young man, Hitler and Mussolini barked their speeches into microphones, their mouths contorted with hatred. While in 1925, the film director Sergei Eisenstein made an iconic film, the Battleship Potemkin, about the Russian Revolution where, in one of the most famous cinematographic scenes of all time, a screaming nanny, the glass of her Penz-Nez shattered into her bleeding eye emits, what Bacon described, as ‘a human cry’ from the black cavern of her mouth. The mouth, fringed with teeth, returns again in numerous other images throughout this exhibition – in the centre of a ghostly hybrid/human owl in Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950, and the contorted and distorted figure of a ‘Fury,’ 1944 arched in an orgasmic scream gushing red roses from its throat, or in the studies of caged Baboons and Chimpanzees rattling their cages.
francis-bacon-man kneeling-artlyst

Francis Bacon Man Kneeling In The Grass 1952 Francis Bacon Head I 1948 Photo © Artlyst 2022

As a young gay man in London, when homosexuality was illegal, Bacon, conditioned to the sexual masochism instilled by his brutal father, explored the gay haunts of Soho. Rough sex was to his taste. Bodies were disposable. Muscles, flesh and available orifices were all that mattered. After leaving Ireland, he’d spent time in Paris and seen the meat markets and abattoirs, also discovering the visceral, fleshy paintings of Soutine. Like the French philosopher and theoretician Georges Bataille, Bacon came to explore the duality within man’s nature between the ‘irrational’ sacred and the ‘rational’ profane, that dichotomy of terror and awe within the human psyche. For Bataille, the ‘scared’ encapsulated ‘inner experience’ that disrupted order and incited both disgust and veneration. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in Bacon’s 1960 painting Pope and Chimpanzee, where the gesticulating animal morphs into a pontiff with an ape-like face. Here, the normally subsumed animal nature of man hidden beneath the niceties of a red clerical gown is made visible. Bacon had been fascinated by seeing wild animals hunting since visiting, in 1951, his mother and sisters who had moved to South Africa. He haunted the streets of Soho like a predictor, the low-life drinking dens, the gambling salons, the queer pubs. Man Kneeling in Grass, 1952, a nude male, buttocks raised in an inviting sodomistic pose, takes on the quality of prey camouflaged by the zebra patterns of the savannah scrub and recalls William Blake’s mad and defeated Nebuchadnezzar crawling naked on his hands and knees, his wild beard dragging along the ground.

Myth played a central role in Bacon’s iconography. He incorporated echoes of the art and literature of the ancient world into his allusive imagery, such as his Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981 with its blood-soaked reverberations, and the Second Version of Triptych, 1944. He once admitted that ‘The Furies’ often visited him. These vengeful goddesses seemed to function as harbingers of guilt, malevolence and destruction in his godless world. But Bacon never really explained his use of imagery and, like the great Egyptian art he so admired, held precise meanings close with the enigma of the sphinx.

Francis Bacon Triptych 1987 Francis Bacon Head I 1948 Photo © Artlyst 2022

Movement was another thing that fascinated him. Dogs, men having sex and the stark image of a Paralytic Child Walking on all Fours, 1961 were taken from Human and Animal Locomotion, the photographic studies made by Eadweard Muybridge in the 19th century. In Bacon’s hands, Muybridge’s wrestlers become men copulating, underlining Bacon’s penchant for violent sex. By the 1960s, his preoccupation with the body in motion had led to increasing distortions in the figures that he painted, including his few female studies of Henrietta Moraes. Among the most disturbing is the portrait of his lover George Dyer Crouching – he died of an overdose on the toilet two days before the opening of Bacon’s triumphant and career-making retrospective at the Grand Palais – standing on what looks like a diving board, enclosed in some strange circular pit like an animal waiting to be fed.

Towards the end of his life, Bacon became fascinated – like his hero Picasso had been – with the bullfight. In his late 1987 Triptych, he shows the wounded and bandaged legs of a nude matador, the wounds raw as sexual orifices, the bull’s horns a final brutal phallic symbol. The bull was to be the subject of his final painting. Unusually painted in monochrome, with dust added from the studio floor, the animal seems to be dissolving into the dark, merging with the void behind the white walls as it, finally, loses its power.

Words: Sue Hubbard Top Photo: RA Installation P C Robinson © Artlyst 2022

Francis Bacon: Man and Beast Royal Academy 29 January 2022 – 17 April 2022

Study of a Dog – After Francis Bacon – Sue Hubbard From Ghost Station (Salt) 2004

Beyond the date palm
and ribbon of hot sand,
the electric zip of blue sea
and strip of burning highway
where cars black as ants
flow liquid in the heat,
and petrol fumes catch
in the throat like rags,
the midday sun bleaches
colour from the concrete boulevard,
and a patch of back-street dirt
a brindled dog,
sinews taut, elastic,
turns and turns
in its own shadow,
red-prick tongue hanging
from frilled chops,
chasing its own tail.
Flea ridden, the stink of gutter
clotted in its fetid fur.
It is, behind its black snout,
and milk-filmed eye,
behind its helmet of bone
and knowledge of the human,
returning to what is
vicious, taboo, feral,
to what is dangerous.

Frank Auerbach: Head of E.O.W.II

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

Painting for me is a set of connections, a set of sensations of conflicting movements and experiences, which somehow, one hopes, has congealed or cohered or risen out of the battle into being an image that stands up for itself. – Frank Auerbach

How do you make sense of your life if on your 8th birthday you’re put on a train in Germany with a neatly labelled suitcase, to be bundled out of the country, never to see your parents again? Such was the fate of the painter Frank Auerbach, sent in 1939 to England only to learn, years later, that his parents had perished in Auschwitz. He has always claimed that he had a happy childhood at Bunce Court, the liberal boarding school that catered for the children of refugees and intellectuals, that he never enquired into the details of his parents’ death. ‘I did this thing which psychiatrists frown on; I am in total denial. It’s worked for me very well…I went to a marvellous school, and it was truly a happy time. There’s just never been a point in my life when I felt I wish I had parents.’ Those same psychiatrists might suggest that the coping mechanism for this emotional trauma has been his obsessive commitment to – above anything or anyone – his role as a painter. Though he has admitted, elsewhere with more candour, that: ‘I was always aware of death because of my background. And, in some curious way, the practice of art and the awareness of the imminence of death are connected.’ Frank Auerbach has always painted as if his life depends on it.

Frank Auerbach Head OF E.O.W. II, 1964

One of this country’s most challenging post-war artists, he has rigorously eschewed isms and movements. Arguably, his most important influence was his tutor David Bomberg whom he met when, as a 16 year old new to London, he enrolled at the Borough Polytechnic. He realised, early, that to be serious, he had to bring ‘some experience that is your own and to try and record it in an idiom that is your own, and not to give a damn about what anybody else says to you.’ He is notoriously reclusive and works every day without fail, wrestling in his own complex and determined way in his sparse studio with the materiality of paint to create unique images that say something new about the world. He does not make ‘pictures’, he does not copy what he sees in front of him in order to flatter or to make something ‘artistic’, pleasing or decorative. Rather he tries to describe the thingness of the thing in front of him. Its essence. He might be described as the Gerard Manly Hopkins of the art world for the late 19th-century poet-priest Hopkins broke new ground with his concept of ‘inscape’, by which he meant the unified complex of characteristics that gave each thing its uniqueness and yet differentiated it from everything else. If Auerbach believed in mantras, this might be his.

His work consists mainly of two groups: ‘landscapes’: urban scenes of Primrose Hill and Mornington Crescent near his studio, places that he returns to again and again, and portraits of a few people to whom he is close and who have sat for him regularly over many years – wives, lovers, his son, and a few trusted art world friends. His working method is slow, gruelling and obsessive. He scrapes back the surface of a painting hundreds of times in order to begin afresh and achieve something united and, above all, truthful. One of his most consistent models was Stella West (1916-2014), whom he met when he was 17 (she was 15 years older) whilst involved in a production of Peter Ustinov’s House of Regrets. He became her lodger and she became his lover and muse.

He painted her again and again and in 1959 said: ‘with someone, one knows one’s got to destroy the momentary things. At the end comes a certain improvisation. I get the courage to do the improvisation only at the end… painting, one destroys everything. In life, one can’t…. It’s a sort of rage… I always finish a picture in anger….One never has power over anything, can never do anything clearly or purely… that’s why one paints the things one loves because one is aware of all the relevances maybe, it’s the only way to get power over the things one loves…..’

His painting of E.O. W. II, 1964 – as Stella was always referred to – encompasses this complex gamut of emotions and aspirations. The palette is primarily blue, black and white, with flashes of ochre and a sliver of red delineating her sad, downturned mouth. It is not a ‘likeness’. You would not have recognised Stella from the portrait if you had bumped into her in the street. It is, rather, a presence. Something essential. A clue to what it must be like to be Stella, to feel like Stella posing for this man she loves, who labours away hour after hour, often on his knees, on the canvas between you. The more time one gives to the portrait, the more the piercing sad blue eyes draw in the viewer’s gaze and the more tension one feels in the work. It is as if this person has finally found her way out of a deep thicket or wood and is emerging, tired, damaged and a little distressed into the light. The smears, the black holes and crevices, the accretions of paint, the swirls and truncations of line all hint at the ‘face’ behind the ‘face’, something akin to an authentic self. Stella once said that when posing for Auerbach: ‘Nothing stood in his way.’

Much has been made of Auerbach’s thick paint. But it is not a style nor a mannerism – he has at times wrongly been called an expressionist – instead, it is a process of mapping, like that of a cartographer exploring uncertain terrains. The marks, brush strokes and docked lines are a way and means of seeing. If he resembles any other painter, it is undoubtedly Giacometti, whose marks pose a series of existential questions. Like Sam Beckett, Auerbach understands that ‘there is nothing to express… together with the obligation to express.’ For him, painting is a Sisyphean enterprise. He knows he will ‘fail again’ but hopefully ‘fail better’. He has said, ‘I never visualise a picture before I start…I have an impulse and I try to find a form for that impulse.’ This painting of Stella is, in turn, intimate, angry, perceptive and tender. A courageous, bravura ‘portrait’ always on the right side of collapse. Their turbulent relationship lasted for around fifteen years and caused a hiatus in his marriage to his wife Julia and his relationship with his son Jake. Fresh, visceral and passionate, the work is an intense observation plumbed from the depths of the artist’s being, from that sanguine place the poet W.B. Yeats called ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.’

Top Photo: FRANK AUERBACH B. 1931 HEAD OF E.O.W. II, 1964 Detail – Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts London

Lubaina Himid: So Many Competing Ideas Tate Modern

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

She’s the oldest artist to have won the Turner Prize (she is now 67). Born in Zanzibar, Lubaina Himid returned with her Lancastrian, textile-designer mother to Maida Vale when little, after her African father died from malaria. They moved in with her aunt, a music teacher, who made sure that her niece could read by the time she was four, while her mother took her on trips to the V&A. Fast forward to Wimbledon School of Art, where she studied theatre design, only to realise that, in those days, ballet and opera were largely dominated by white men.

The exhibition as whole is rather baggy and lacks focus – SH

By the age of 36, she’d moved to Preston to what is now the University of Central Lancashire and eventually became a professor of contemporary art. Part of a generation of emigres who, for a variety of reasons, came to this country and wove their differently lived experiences into the warp and weft of post-war Britain, enlivening it with new music, food and ways of seeing, it was a shock to discover that the streets and institutions were blighted with racism. Art, for Himid, became political. Along with other young black British artists in the 80s, she used her platform to highlight these concerns. Unlike her contemporaries – the YBAs, primed by the 80s zeitgeist of Goldsmiths to learn how to appeal to the uber-collector of the day, Saatchi – these young black artists – many from the provinces – tackled subjects such as institutional racism and the lack of opportunities offered to talented black youth.

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern

Now Tate Modern is presenting her largest solo show to date, giving her the chance to demonstrate that all the world’s a stage and meld her interests in theatre, opera, architecture and painting in the bunker-like spaces of the Blavatnik building. At the gallery, entrance are a series of banners designed to look like East African Kanga fabric, inscribed with phrases and homilies. Overall, they are entitled How Do You Spell Change? Painted in a frieze around the top of the wall in sugary pink are the words Our Kisses are Petals, Our Tongues Caress the Bloom. This, presumably, is to set the tone for the exhibition within. Credited with being one of the most powerful political voices in British contemporary art, my hopes were set high. Himid has woven a series of questions throughout the exhibition in which she asks us to consider how history and the built environment shape our lives. A form of visual Socratic questioning, the aim is to encourage viewers to engage with alternative discourses and challenge long-held prejudices and mindsets. It’s an interesting idea, but let down by the blunt lack of subtlety of the questions – as if there’s an easy, black and white answer to these complex issues.

As we enter the first space, we encounter Metal Handkerchiefs, a series of nine vibrantly painted metal sheets which appropriate the ubiquitous language of health and safety that so often dictates how we use architectural spaces.

Moving further into the exhibition, Jelly Mould Pavilions for Liverpool is an imagined competition to design public monuments for the city in order to celebrate the contribution of its African diaspora to the city’s history and wealth. Using Victorian jelly moulds as architectural models, she wittily reflects in her imagined cityscape the entangled web between the consumption of sugar, the slave trade and Liverpool’s prosperity. It’s a clever, engaging piece but not shown to its best advantage in the vast gallery. It demands a more intimate space.

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern

And that’s much of the problem. The exhibition is simply too large and overblown -with paintings, installations and sound pieces – and, as a result, feels unfocused. In her sound pieces, Reduce the Time Spent Holding, Himid recites from health and safety manuals to the rhythm of tools and machines, while in Blue Grid Test, patterns from around the world are woven with memories of the colour blue, spoken in three languages. Then there’s the sound of the sea and creaking wood – presumably to remind us of slave ships – juxtaposed with a wave-like sculpture. But so many competing ideas simply dilute the whole. One wonders whether this is a bad curatorial decision or Himid’s choice. Many of the individual works are powerful, but less would have amounted to more.

Among her most striking works is A Fashionable Marriage, first shown in 1986, a cardboard-cut-out installation that revisits Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode: The Toilette – a biting satire on the moral corruption of the elite and wealthy in the 1700s. In her witty reconstruction, one half focuses on the art world – the castrato becomes critic, the flautist, the dealer, while random other figures are artists, including the de rigueur feminist. The other half of the work includes political figures of the day: Thatcher and Regan, along with the National Front. On the floor is a little girl – who, like the boy in the story of the Emperor with no clothes, blurts out the truth that he’s naked. The little girl is saying to the artist: ‘Stop negotiating and being polite. We have to fight. We are part of a big political battle’. This is one of the works where Himid’s political message and the artwork potently meld to significant effect.

I wanted to love this exhibition. After all, who could possibly fault an artist of colour for wanting to point out what she and her generation have been up against it and that they had to battle to have any degree of visibility or a voice? But ethical sympathy isn’t enough. Yes, there are some potent works here, but the exhibition as whole is rather baggy and lacks focus. Everything has been thrown in, including the kitchen sink. Whether this is the Tate’s fault or Himid’s, I’ve no idea. It’s a pity because a tightly focused exhibition of her best work would have been a very potent thing, indeed.

Lubaina Himid Tate Modern Until July 2022

Marlene Dumas: Oscar Wilde and Bosie

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose, the homily goes. Yet, Marlene Dumas’ portraits of the writer Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) and his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945), known as ‘Bosie’, illustrate that social attitudes do change that images can, over time, take on a different resonance. Based on original nineteenth-century photographs, Dumas’s dual portraits were first shown as part of Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 – an installation developed by Artangel to respond to Wilde’s punitive incarceration for his affair with the callow young socialite, Douglas, and the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality.

Marlene Dumas’ psychologically nuanced paintings and drawings explore identity, gender, race and sexuality – SH

Born on the outskirts of Cape Town and educated at an Afrikaans-speaking school, before going to an English speaking university, Dumas admits that she’d never sat with a person of colour in the same class, never had dinner with a Jewish or Muslim family, but as a student started to read the poet Allen Ginsberg and the critic Lucy Lippard and decided that making art was all about asking questions. She never paints from life, but her psychologically nuanced paintings and drawings explore identity, gender, race and sexuality. At times controversial and hard-hitting, there’s a sensual urgency to her work that touches on death and guilt, the transgressive and the profane and investigates how painting transforms a given image. Her portraits of Wilde and Douglas are stark reminders of the conflict and hypocrisy that existed between public and private realms in the Victorian era. Reputation and respectability were all, and life a perpetual game of snakes and ladders where reputations could be lost in a flash. Status was paramount. Yet behind a tightly regulated social veil lay the murky world of child prostitution, wife-beating and rent boys, where blackmail could easily exploit the rift between public constructs and personal behaviour.

Marlene Dumas: Portraits Of Oscar Wilde & Bosie exhibited In Wilde’s Cell At Reading Gaol In 2016- Photo: © PC Robinson Artlyst

Oscar Wilde was one of the most famous figures of his generation, known for his glittering literary talent, his foppish sense of style – think blue carnations – and his razor-sharp wit. The epitome of a modern celebrity before such a concept was even born. He’d had his fair share of tragedies: the loss of his beloved sister Isola when he was just 12 years old, the defection of his first love, Florence Balcombe, to his rival, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. But his seemingly happy marriage to Constance Lloyd and his loving relationship with his children – for whom he wrote some of the most spellbinding children’s stories in English literature – allowed him to keep his homosexuality under wraps. Then he met the mercurial Bosie and they became lovers. It was an obsessive, self-destructive relationship. Bosie introduced Wilde to a world of gay prostitutes and glittering parties. Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, a deeply conservative, vicious man, blamed Wilde for the gossip surrounding his son. When he publicly accused Wilde of being a homosexual — illegal at that time in England — Wilde, encouraged by Bosie, chose to fight the charges instead of fleeing abroad to the more sexually enlightened France. A psychopath, the Marquess condemned his family to unmitigated misery, bulling Alfred and describing his other son Percy, as a ‘sicked-up looking creature…swathed in irons to hold him together it used to make me sick to look at him and think that he could be called my son.’

While Wilde was serving his sentence in Reading prison, Bosie failed to keep in contact, just as he had failed to defend him in the dock. A spoilt narcissist, he carried traits of the family’s genetic instability. Wilde suffered terribly from the harsh physical conditions and emotional isolation. However, an unusually enlightened prison governor thought writing might be more cathartic than hard labour and allowed him to write to Bosie “for medicinal purposes”. Though not permitted to send the letter, each page was taken away as it was completed and only returned to Wilde on his release on 18 May 1897. An indictment of Bosie’s vanity and his own weakness, De Profundis charts his spiritual growth during those dark prison days when he allied himself with Christ, whom he saw as a heroic, romantic artist. The result is one of the great works of prison literature.

Broke and lonely, after his release, Wilde lived in a series of cheap hotels in the Hôtel d’Alsace in the 6th arrondissement in Paris. An ear infection that had troubled him for years appears to have flared up and his last days were probably spent in terrible agony. Buried in a pauper’s grave in southwest Paris, his remains were later moved to Père Lachaise. It was a tragic end for a man of such wit and glittering bravura. Wilde wasn’t just a great writer of plays, stories and profound moral tales – but also an amazing dinner guest, a raconteur sought after for his company and frequent witticisms. An aesthete, he believed that art existed for its own sake. That beauty was its own purpose.

In Dumas’s paintings, Bosie’s calculated look stands in contrast to Wilde’s dreamy poetic gaze that emphasises not only his creativity but his vulnerability. More usually known for her paintings of women in various degrees of physical exposure that reveal the psychological landscape beneath the surface of her subjects, Dumas, here, shows a dissolute, immature man prepared to destroy his lover for his own self-indulgent ends. The two paintings, hung side by side, unpack notions of complicity and victimhood, whilst seeming to suggest that in a more enlightened age Wilde could simply have been himself, celebrated for being the great writer he was, a lover of both men and women.

Living on the Margins – Joan Eardley at the Scottish Gallery

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

Joan Eardley Centenary, The Scottish Gallery
30 July – 28 August 2021

Lonely people are drawn to the sea. Not for this artist the surge and glitter of salons

‘Flood Tide’, Joan Eardley

She has often been described as a forgotten Scottish painter. Neither of those things are quite accurate. Joan Eardley, who died in 1963 at the age of forty-two, has always been admired by the cognoscenti for her soulful portraits of Glaswegian children and her fluid, expressionistic landscapes. She was not Scottish but English, only moving to Scotland by chance. But what is undoubtedly true is that for a socially awkward, young gay woman, the male-dominated 1950s artworld, and Glasgow in particular, was a difficult place in which to make a mark.

Born in 1921 in Sussex, on a diary farm run by her father, she was five when her mother took her and her sister to live with her grandmother and aunt in Blackheath. It’s not completely clear what happened but it seems the farm failed and was sold. Three years later in 1929, her father, who had been gassed in the Great War, committed suicide. War was, again, to colour her life when, in late 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War, she, her mother, grandmother and sister all relocated to Bearsden, a comfortable middle-class suburb just north-west of Glasgow.

In London, Eardley had briefly attended Goldsmiths College of Art and from Bearsden she, now, began to commute into the city to attend classes at the Glasgow School of Art. It was to became her creative hub for a decade, providing her with evening classes and, eventually, a travelling scholarship that enabled her, in 1949, to visit France and Italy to broaden her art historical knowledge. As an adult, she could have moved back south and become part of the Soho art scene – drunk with Francis Bacon and the two ubiquitous Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde – but Glasgow suited this cripplingly shy young woman who seemed to feel she didn’t quite belong anywhere. During her time at Glasgow Art School, she began to make frequent visits to the studio of the Polish artist Josef Herman, who happened to be living in the city. His political images of Welsh miners and loose brushwork were to become influential to her future work, perhaps giving her permission to broaden the scope of both her style and subject matter.

Girl with a Poke of Chips, Joan Eardley, oil on canvas with newspaper, 68 x 50 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
The Striped Cardigan, Joan Eardley, 1962, pastel on glass paper, 26 x 24 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
Grey Beach and Sky, Joan Eardley, 1962, oil on board, 56 x 107.5 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery
Catterline Landscape, Joan Eardley, c.1962, oil on board, 94 x 104 cm
© Estate of Joan Eardley. Provided courtesy of The Scottish Gallery

By temperament she was drawn to the marginal and the liminal and felt at home among the condemned tenements of the Gorbals. An outsider, she was attracted to those on the wrong side of the tracks, to a fast disappearing Glasgow, to the gypsy camp at Bearsden, the cranes and bomb damage of Clydebank, to the city’s tight family clans and street life, seeing the place as a rich, vibrant entity. Setting up her studio in Townhead – by any stretch of the imagination a soot-blasted slum – close to George Square and the City Chambers, she befriended the Samson children. With their raw cheeks and snot encrusted noses, they epitomised a warmth and authenticity she seemed to crave. She was, by all accounts, ‘a lovely, lovely person’, though quite ‘mannish looking’ who used to give the ‘wee sketches’ she tacked to her studio wall to the children who posed for her, often to be used by their mothers, later, as kindling.

Like that other perennial artist outsider, Van Gogh, Eardley had natural empathy for the dispossessed. She felt at home among those who were too busy surviving to make judgements about her, simply accepting her for who she was. She loved the vibrancy of the Samsons. ‘They are full of what’s gone on today,’ she said in a taped interview:

– who has broken into what shop and who has flung a pie in whose face – it goes on and on. They just let out their life and energy… I do try to think about them in painterly terms…all the bits of red and bits of colour and they wear each other’s clothes – never the same things twice running – they are Glasgow… as long as Glasgow has this I’ll always want to paint.

These relationships, without the need for social niceties, suited her down to the ground.

An aura of poverty clung to the children she painted, The Girl with a Poke of Chips (1960-63), with her dirty snagged hair and rosy cheeks, the eczema-raw lipped little girl with the pudding basin hair cut in The Stripped Cardigan (1962). Eardley made thousands of quick sketches of these rag-tag-and-bob-tail children who’d only oblige her by staying still for so long. Many of the drawings were made in pastel on sandpaper to catch as many pigments as possible. Her hasty dark drawings share something of the raw immediacy and compassion of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters that depicts the harsh life of those in the coal mining district of the Borinage, Belgium. Other paintings, such as the dominantly blue Girl and Chalked Wall, (c. 1959-62), where a small girl is subsumed into the pattern of graffiti on the wall behind her, elide a sense of place with the people of that poverty-hardened community, in much the same way as Paula Modersohn-Becker did with the peasant children she met in the village of Worpswede on the north German moors. At her best, these are moving, insightful portraits but, at times, perhaps due to the sheer number she did, they slip into a mawkish sentimentality that smacks of the Montmartre pavement artist’s wide-eyed urchins.

Eardley’s first paintings of Catterline date from the 1950s. Catterline was a fishing village with a population of around eighty: ‘just vast waste, and vast seas, vast areas of cliff.’ Eardley visited the village for ten years, staying with her friend Annette Stephen (née Soper) who offered her the free use of her property, before renting a cottage and eventually buying her own in 1959. It was in Catterline that she found her real subject in the wide fields and shoreline, the panoramic views from the cliffs. Although mostly domestic in scale, these paintings have the immersive drama of larger works. The gnarled trees blasted by spray and wind, the land honed by centuries of agriculture and the pounding rhythms of the sea give the viewer the sense of being immersed in the landscape, as one might be in the rich language of a Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem. There’s a visceral immediacy here that verges on the spiritual, an attempt to represent what cannot be said in words. As René Girard wrote in Violence and the Sacred, (1984) ‘Violence is the heart and soul of the sacred’.

Like Turner, who allegedly lashed himself to the mast of steamship for four hours during a nocturnal storm in order to recall it with greater accuracy, Eardley strode out into snowstorms and gale force winds in her RAF flying suit and boots, her Sybil-Thorndike-Joan-of-Arc haircut soaked against her broad face, to paint in all weathers, her easel held in place with rocks and rope to stop it blowing away. The result was a set of extraordinary elemental paintings where the expressive handling of paint lead not only to an intense drama but animated the pent up maelstrom within her, the depression, the outsider status at her ‘inappropriate’ female loves.

Yet Eardley became a valued part of the village community, finding a place for herself on this edge of the land and sea. She worked tirelessly, walking around the untamed windblown countryside with a sketchbook. With its dirty light and dark cloud-laden sky that threaten the salt blown tree in the left of the canvas, Catterline Landscape (1962), is a work of great sensibility. While Grey Beach and Sky (1962) has all the painterly and emotional spectacle of Constable’s Rainstorm over the Sea (1824-28), with its thunderous black clouds and torrential downpour that captures, as does Eardley’s own painting, the atmosphere in a few hasty sweeps of the brush. The sea’s turbulent movement is achieved by the pulled white paint sweeping in a wave of spume up the dark beach to the small white cottage. It was, as she describes it: ‘A big sea – with lovely light – greyness and blowing swirling mists – and latterly a strong wind blowing from the south, blowing up great froths of whiteness of the sea, like soap suds into the field behind out wee house.’ Yet a male critic criticised her for not being able to free herself from representation and embrace pure abstraction, comparing her unfavourably to the Cornish Peter Lanyon. But this was to misunderstand her work and the equivalent of complaining that Emile Nolde wasn’t Picasso.

If Joan Eardley hadn’t been a shy gay woman, who hid herself away in the depths of Scotland, but had been part of the bohemian Soho set – and more conveniently for the times – a man, she would have, undoubtedly, been better known. But because she was a woman, her fate, like that of her contemporary, the artist Sheila Fell, who painted the Cumberland landscape, was not to be taken seriously. Despite her outsider status, she was a natural painter with the equivalent of perfect pitch. Paint was her language, one in which she could give voice to her quelled passions and love of nature for, as Van Gogh once wrote: ‘Art is to console those who are broken by life.’

Published in The London Magazine

Basil Beattie and Francis Aviva Blane

Art Catalogues

To create marks on a surface expresses a fundamental human desire to mirror and make sense of the world. For the child, drawing is a way of exploring boundaries, of developing perception and notions of ‘I and not I’. Verbal communication offers just a tiny insight into the mind, whilst drawing gives an unspoken glimpse into the psyche. Many of us doodle, but mostly we lose the natural childhood ability to draw and paint, becoming self-conscious and critical. The artist, however, continues to nurture this ability. To foster a tactile and sensual relationship with their materials that most of us have lost. Their gestures, whilst still partly unconscious, articulate a superior visual sensibility, an understanding of equivalences, substitutions, and metaphors.

Two artists for whom the physicality of the surface remains paramount are Frances Aviva Blane and Basil Beattie. For both, the relationship with the body – the reach of the arm, the pressure of the hand, the co-ordination of the eye – is paramount. Form, process and subject are inextricable. The line and mark a graphic, dynamic delineation of their thinking. 

Basil Beattie, the older of the two artists, has his sensibility deeply rooted in the post-war New York school of painters. The imagery and feeling of his work owes allegiance to Philip Guston. Over the years, Beattie has worked with a series of architypes: ladders, staircases and ziggurats. The sense of existential alienation is palpable. In these works colour is absent. Black dominates. His flights of steps lead only to ambiguous passageways and uncertain voids. The rungs of his ladders collapse or are bound onto their wooden struts with a savage carelessness. Whilst imitating the appearance of actual things, his iconography has become more abstract, expressing deep psychological dis-ease. This is a manifesto to failure. The dark despair of Sam Beckett – ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ – made visual in a way that only an artist can articulate. For Beckett believed, as Beattie surely does, that failure is an essential part of any artist’s work. The urgency of his pictograms forces us to become witnesses to his powerful psychodramas, ones that are often uncomfortable and overwhelming, but always profound.

Frances Aviva Blane paints heads, but they’re no more ‘real’ than Basil Beattie’s steps and ziggurats. There’s a physical savagery to her mark-making, as if stirring her images out of the ether by spells and incantations. At other times, they feel like forms of decimation or erasure, as if she were angrily quoting T.S. Elliot’s  lines: “that’s not what I meant at all…that’s not it at all.”  Her charcoal scrawls evoke notions of calligraphy, of a nascent language. As in the late Susan Hiller’s work, there’s a concern between the communicable and the incommunicable, the conscious and the unconscious. Blane’s heads – which reverberate like Bacon’s furious, screaming Popes – play with the relationship between the natural and chance, the personal and the social, what is known and what is not. In her dense, scribbled and blotted images there are multiple languages, correspondences and codes. But unlike Beattie’s dour black and white ziggurats and ladders there is, in Blane’s brazen scarlet and bile-yellow blotches, an anarchic, chthonic sensuality that echoes that of Dubuffet, Cy Twombly and the Outsider Artist, Danielle Jacqui.

Both Beattie and Blane ally themselves to the fundamental existential questions of modernism rather than to the irony of postmodernism, whilst being aware of the decentring of the contemporary subject. This can only ever lead to a perpetual series of open-ended questions, to the urgency of making further images and the perpetual quest for sense and meaning.

Metanoia – John Beard

Art Catalogues

“I tell you that I have a long way to go before I am – where one begins….. Resolve to be always beginning – to be a beginner!”

Rainer Maria Rilke
On Love and Other Difficulties

When Odysseus started out on his last journey he knew that he would never return home but continued anyway, driven on by a thirst for knowledge. From Socrates to the German poet Rilke, artists and thinkers have tried to find answers to the point and purpose of existence. Odysseus’ voyage is one of literature’s most potent journeys. The questions posed are fundamental: why are we here, and to what end?

There have always been individuals who travel – physically, emotionally and artistically – looking for answers. As post-Nietzschean moderns we no longer expect to find easy solutions lurking at the end of mountain ranges or rainbows. To be a painter at the beginning of the 21st century, when painting has been declared dead and revivified more times than you can utter ‘ism’, is a complex

task. There are those, such as Cecily Brown and Richard Price, who have embraced irony, pastiche and the history of art as their milieu. For others, the choice to journey into deeper realms remains an abiding concern. To mine a seam that would have felt familiar to Rembrandt, Turner or even Cy Twombly. These artists renounce the polished surfaces and eclecticism of the postmodern to pursue depth, a tough challenge in an essentially senseless existential world. For them, the quest is all. But directions and definitions can prove slippery. Not only psychologically, but within in the medium of paint itself. A medium that has all but become exhausted by continued innovation and novelty.

For the last 50 years the art world has been so distorted by hype and careerism that it has become difficult to see the aesthetic wood for the trees. But one thing, of which we can be certain, is that most assumptions underlying both contemporary art and society are in a state of flux. As W.B. Yeats suggested more than a century ago, centres do not hold or, rather, we can no longer take it as a given that there are any fixed centres – only a ceaseless ebb and flow.

John Beard, both as man and artist, embraces this fluidity. His life has been an Odyssean search for personal and artistic fulfilment. An international rover, a watcher and close observer, he has called London, Sydney, New York and Lisbon home. This peripatetic existence reflects an ongoing internal dialogue. Aware of – as befits the previous Head of Painting at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University) – but outside the current framework of constrictive art world debates, his has been a bid for artistic individualism and freedom of expression.

From his native Welsh valleys to the Australian outback, via romanticism, modernism and postmodernism, John Beard has remained intellectually and artistically itinerant and unfettered. His geographical meanderings parallel his ongoing discourses as painter. The whys, the hows, the wherefores. Through his drawn and painted marks he maps undiscovered spaces like a cartographer charting new terrains. Each brush stroke smeared on canvas or paper becomes a search for fresh vistas and new worlds.

Many years ago, at a lecture by Susan Hiller, he heard her suggest that the structure of the work is its ‘content’, not its ‘subject matter’. That thought stayed with him. In another talk at the University of Exeter in 1993, she claimed that: ‘The ‘self’ of an artist moves reflexively through a practice, modified by what has been learned from each work made.’ By training as an anthropologist, with a profound interest in psychoanalysis, Hiller was intrigued by how the chthonic informs our visual vocabulary. How ancient architypes accessed by visionaries such as William Blake, the Aborigines, even the ancient Greeks visiting their sacred temples in search of signs and prophesies, have long been the wellspring of artist imagination.

Over his career John Beard has experimented with land and seascapes, with animal and human heads. His influences have been diverse, from Andrea Mantegna to John Walker and Philip Guston. He has moved through expressionist abstraction to the minimalism of Japanese mark-making in his beautiful monochromatic Adraga series of 1993, inspired by the rock that lies just off the Atlantic coast near Sintra in Portugal where he was living at the time. The speed of his mark-making, the intuitive gestures and sense of touch stripped bare of artifice, have become the hallmarks of his practice.

Now lockdown has given him the chance to take a new direction. Using paper towels soaked in pungent turps held in a rubber-gloved hand, hog and sable brushes loaded with Cobalt and Cerulean Blue, Raw Siena and bleached off-white beeswax, he swept transparent veils across his canvases to conjure a new set of ‘self-portraits’. Memory played its part as an arsenal of letters and numbers drawn from Welsh grammar school O-level art returned, decades later, in a threnody of remembrance – Avenir, Baskerville, Helvetic, Times New Roman, Futura – to delineate the orifice of an eye socket or nose, a lip or cheek bone. These works were to become an extension of his exploratory mapping process: a reaching towards, an exploration that followed wherever the initial marks lead. He insists that he really didn’t know what he was doing when he first embarked on this series but found himself using typographical forms to suggest the structure of a face, playing with the negative space between letters and numerals. Unsure of his direction, he worked on all sixteen canvases simultaneously, like a traveller trying different routes to arrive at some unidentified location. When he hit a dead end in one work, he simply moved to another, slowly resolving the problem through the process of making, without allowing himself to become bogged down in any one image. This continuous Beckett-like process of failing and picking himself up, allowed mistakes to be resolved as solutions. Landscapes became bodies, fonts became faces. The word became image.

He explains that in ‘confronting the scale of an imaged magnified head’, the gestures of his brush marks ‘mimicked the natural flow and movement of the human body’. Made with a sweep of the arms and torso, instead of the hand and wrist more appropriate in scale to a life-sized head, he was following an ancient path – not, he insists, one looked for, but incidentally found – from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs with their references to the human form, via the Roman architect Vitruvius and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, to the measurements used by builders since the dawn of time which relate to the human reach. For Leonardo, proportions and mechanical properties of the human body were no less than an analogy for the workings of the universe. Slowly, what began to appear was a series of alphabetic and numerical forms – ‘typographical hybrids’ – that took on anthropomorphic elements to reveal parallels between typographic and corporeal anatomy. Andreas

Vesalius, the 16th century Flemish anatomist and physician, author of the influential De Humani Corpus Fabrica, the prototype to modern human anatomy, also became a player in the matrix of influences. As did the 1525 The Book of Hours by the French humanist and engraver, Torins (Geoffroy Tory) that was published as Champfleury (roughly translated as ‘flowery field’) and subtitled ‘The Art and Science of the Proportion of the Attic or Ancient Roman Letters, According to the Human Body and Face’, which claimed alphabetic fonts should reflect the ideal proportions of the human form.

Once he started looking, Beard found infinite connections. In 1917 Sir Darcy Thompson pointed out in his book on Growth and Form the correlations between biological structures and mechanical phenomena, and their relationship to the Fibonacci sequence (1). This was to be taken up later in the 20th century by Le Corbusier, who developed a universal measuring system, the ‘Modulor’ (2) that attempted to relate architecture to a mathematical order orientated to human scale.

Experimenting with various fonts and typefaces, Beard began to create what he refers to as ‘an orchestration of fused and layered marks, the facture of the surface creating a palimpsest, a visible evidence of the chronology and history of the process of the painting itself.’ He started to find parallels between the proportion, scale, contrast and weight of the typefaces with the balance and rhythm of the body, and the flow of letters in a sentence illuminated by the Bouma system (3). Gradually, through this process of experimentation, each painting found its own personality coalescing into closely related families of roughly three or four paintings per group.

As with de Kooning’s Women of the 1950s and 60s, the rectangle of the canvas became packed with highly charged marks, so the compact image virtually filled the picture space. As in de Kooning’s Woman in Landscape III (1968) we are, with John Beard’s iconic images in his body/landscapes – an intrinsic part of them – not simply viewers looking in at them. Enveloped by the image, we plunge into not only their physical typography but their opaque Freudian depths. Meanings are provisional: ambiguous conundrums that raise, like contemporary life itself, more questions than answers. By being with these experimental works, by letting ourselves journey through the process of their making, we become witnesses and fellow travellers, not to some static finite image, but to the artist’s processes of thinking and the electrical charge of paint.

  1. Fibonnaci Sequence: in mathematics Fibonacci numbers form a sequence such that each number is the sum of the two preceding ones, starting from 0 and 1. Introduced in 1202, these numbers are strongly related to the golden ratio.
  2. The Modular: an anthropometric scale of proportions devised by the Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965)
  3. Bouma system: named after Dutch vision researcher Herman Bouma it refers to the overall outline, or shape, of a word when reading.

Swimming to Albania



‘I read Sue Hubbard’s anthology of poems Swimming to Albania in one sitting yesterday and I think them wonderful. Luminous, rapturous and melancholy, full of vivid passionate description, boldly and bravely self-revelatory, offering raw melancholy and those so vital moments of self-acceptance, compassion and universal truth.

There are echoes of TS Eliot in the acknowledgement that humankind cannot bear very much reality. But The counterbalance is the sense of the author finding grace and possibility in Keats’s Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness.

But most of all there is Sue’s ecstatic descriptions of field, forest,beach and sky interwoven with an intensely crafted understanding of human emotions that will chime with many of us.’
Angela Neustatter, ex-Guardian journalist

Click for press…

3 Quarks Daily – A Review of Sue Hubbard’s Fourth Poetry Collection Swimming to Albania

‘Swimming to Albania is Sue Hubbard’s fourth collection of poems. The opening poem Lost in Space teases out the preoccupations of the collection – longing, desire and loss – in its presentation of the poet as a child ‘lost’ and dreaming of ‘a boat that will take her home.’

More poems about childhood follow and the sense of being lost is reinforced in the tentative title of ‘1955, perhaps?’ and in the opening of Snow where the poet is ‘lost in an infinity of misted mirrors.’ The words ‘loss’ and ‘lost’ reverberate through the poems in the first of the three sections of the collection, along with ‘absence’ and ‘space.’ This emptiness is a space which cannot be filled because ‘the past is another country / one I barely remember’ and ‘the dead [are] impervious to our childhood questions.’ The truth is ‘a void’ they cannot fill, leaving the poet haunted by ‘all that was never said.’ 

From here, the poet invites the reader to accompany her on a journey in poems which take her from the west coast of Ireland by way of Lisbon, Siena and Greece, to Albania. It soon becomes clear that this journeying is loaded with metaphorical significance: it is a journey into the poet’s past, a voyage of self-discovery, and an Odyssean search for an idealised home where the self is known – a safe place on the other side of grief, a state of reconciliation, redemption, and understanding.

Between the coastal places of the opening and closing poems at either end of the journey, further images of water function as metaphors of psychoanalytic exploration – as the poet dives into deep dark places of self. The Albania which the poet is swimming towards in the title of the collection, and the penultimate poem, is the once-forbidden place that even now is difficult to reach.’
Jane Simmons

You can read more about Swimming to Albania by Sue Hubbard on Creative Writing at Leicester here.

In ‘Those Far Blue Hills’, Sue Hubbard self-identifies as ‘a storyteller / of absence and loss’. Appropriate then, to start with an image of what is largely absent from her poems. In ‘Barreiro’, a rundown town in Portugal is described: its people, graffiti, ‘opera-set houses’ and ‘wrecked staircases’. But what stands out is a young mother whose t-shirt brags in English: ‘I’m exactly where I need to be’. Of all the possible things to notice, this impacts this poet because her writing contrasts such assurance and existential confidence: Hubbard’s focus is on absence, not presence, longing, not fulfilment, what-might-have-been rather than what is (though what is, is often vividly and eloquently portrayed). There is a clear line to be drawn to this new work from Hubbard’s second collection, Ghost Station (2004), with its epigraph from Fernando Pessoa: ‘Some have a great dream in life and fall short of it’.

Growing up in the stifling 1950s, Hubbard’s poems of childhood are full of enjoyable period details. Two sisters, in a London park, are dressed in ‘camel coats / with beaver collars’ (‘1955, perhaps?’). A mother, in a photograph, wears ‘summer shorts’ and sports her ‘Hedy Lamarr hair’ (‘June’). A girl ‘dunk[s] net petticoats into sugar solution // to froth out the nylon frills / of [her] first dance dress’ (‘Snow’). But possessions, beloved of the middle classes, ‘cannot take [anyone] in their arms’ (‘Inheritance’) and family relationships, particularly with the young girl’s father, are summed up in the collection of hats left hanging in the tallboy after his death: ‘there’s silence everywhere’ (‘Hats’). Such an absence of contact and fulfilment seems to spill over into later life, throughout which – and this is the sort of naked declaration Hubbard excels at – the one thing that has always mattered is ‘to wake / mirrored in another’s gaze: / its unplumbed depths’ (‘one thing’). The directness and (even) ferocity of such a statement convinces, though in the aftermath one might want to scrutinise the assumptions, ironies, even the language of it.

An untypical dramatic monologue, ‘Earth-Dreams’, voices a mermaid’s yearning for life on land and the love of a human: ‘Over and over I’ve tried to imagine // a need for balance, that slow steadying of the inner ear, / metatarsals pushing into solid ground’. She pictures the absent love object, but wakes each morning only to water, where ‘there is only silence’. Taking up the watery imagery, the lonely narrator of ‘Lake’ finds its allure too powerful. Despite the business (above all the business of the poet, a business Hubbard pursues so well) of ‘being / in this moment and this following every / tilt and shift of the world’, the temptation to immerse herself is irresistible. Ironically providing stunning details of her descent, she dives, suicidally, ‘till I can no longer go on holding my breath’.

Perhaps travel promises escape from the self’s perceived failings, felt absence and self-consciousness? The final section of Swimming to Albania is rich in touristic details of southern Europe, but Hubbard knows ‘all travel / is a form of return’ (‘Those Far Blue Hills’) and even in Italy, the evening walk must be taken ‘in arm with what might have been’ (‘Lost’). Pessoa and the city of Lisbon still remain touchstones for Hubbard. In ‘Remembering Pessoa’, she imagines adopting the Portuguese poet’s mode of life (attracted perhaps to his continual re-invention of himself in his proliferating heteronyms). The modal verbs of imagined possibility structure this poem – the disengaged life of the flâneuse, the temptations of love – but in the end:

My head aches because
my heart aches, so I write
and write to give meaning
to what isn’t there.

Hubbard’s work has a relatively narrow range, her palette of forms and tones likewise. But we do not (if we have any sense) want Wordsworth to show more knowledge of the streets, ask Larkin to cheer up a bit, insist Lowell should stop talking about himself. There is a type of art that confidently positions itself early and continues to work that seam.
Martyn Crucefix, ACUMEN

On reading Sue Hubbard’s collection Swimming to Albania, the concept that comes to mind is saudade. A. F. G. Bell writes in his study In Portugal, published in 1912: ‘The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future.’

Indeed, we may feel a stronger form of saudade towards people and things we have lost: old habits and sayings; lost lovers; a faraway place where we grew up; loved ones who have died; and faded, though treasured memories of youth. Although it relates to feelings of melancholy and fond memories of what we have lost, it can also be characterised by a sadness coupled with a paradoxical joy emerging from the acceptance of fate and the hope of recovering or replacing what is lost.

In Sue Hubbard’s collection Swimming to Albania, we encounter this longing. The first poem, ‘Lost in Space,’ evokes this vividly with the image of the poet’s childhood room:

Somewhere amid black holes
and the absorption of light
beyond the mass of Milky Way
there’s a distant room:
the walls covered with faded flowers,
a meadow of flecked sunlight,
where a child lies beneath
a bleached quilt in a narrow bed
dreaming of a boat
with a single blue sail,
a boat that will take her home.

In ‘1955, perhaps’, Hubbard offers an image of herself and her sister as children feeding the ducks in a London park. In compiling a collection the order in which poems are placed is crucial. This evocation of longing for a lost past is powerfully followed by ‘June,’ which begins with memories evoked by a photograph of her and her sister on the Côte d’Azur:

You stand in your scuffed Box Brownie square,
pretty and slim in your summer shorts,
your Hedy Lamarr hair, in front of a stage-left
parasol somewhere on the Côte d’Azur

But then this saudade for a lost past turns into a far darker longing for a lost sister:

Years later as you lie trying to catch
your shallow breath in the summer heat,
the same month as your name,
the same month as your birth,
I sit beside your cot holding
your frail hand in mine—
like a child in danger of getting lost—
wanting to tell you: this is who I am,
this has been the story,
that there are no drafts,
no proofs to be corrected,
that we don’t get to write it again.

In ‘Churchyard,’ Sue Hubbard evokes another bereavement, describing the wonderfully surreal moment at which the local vicar empties the poet’s father’s ashes into a newly dug hole in the earth:

It’s the plastic Evian bottle
that throws me, with which
she rinses the caddy,
swirling round the water
to make sure she has every
last speck, every particle
of ash that was you.

The following section of the collection describes a different sort of saudade, a powerful mourning for lost love or lost youth. In ‘another side of desire’, the poet evokes the nostalgia of remembered passion:

in contrast to the loss of small things
the conspiracy of 2
that sets the world on fire
the urgency of that midnight kiss
the tangled sheets of desire
those loves that do not appear
the l o n g i n g
for what might have been
in a space without gravity
there’s no weight
so I listen for the skylark
singing in the high wild blue.

In ‘face,’ the poet offers the reader an unflinching and relentless perspective on lost youth:

why is she stitching her skin
into neat pleats and pouches to tuck
discreetly behind her ears so no one
can see her thin mouth sutured with fear
the smell of age on her like the stinking breath
of a dog the pelt between her crotch
going bald
who would want to touch something
so dirty so broken puddle their fingers
in those dried up holes

Critic Martyn Crucifix has made the very perspicacious observation that in Hubbard’s poems one encounters rage against loss, along with the paradoxical desire to recover at least a measure of order and redemption. He adds, ‘…in the act of each poem’s creation, Hubbard triumphantly snatches positive value from the very precision and courage with which she renders disillusionment.’

This is particularly evident in the poems in the third section, in which we encounter the image of the poetic subject as woman travelling alone in foreign climes, far from familiar scenarios and terms of reference. In the page introducing this third section, Hubbard inserts a quotation from Henry David Thoreau: ‘…not until we have lost the world do we find ourselves, and realise where we are.’ In ‘Lost’, as she wanders through the streets of Siena,

‘…desire fills the empty spaces. There’s nowhere
to get to anymore, so in arm with what might have been,

you make your passegiata, past courtyards and shuttered windows,
with no way of knowing which direction points home.’

In the down-at-heel Portuguese town of Barreiro, the poet experiences a certain saudade for past beauty:

‘Villages die. Towns die. History
is never satisfied. And the similarity
between decay and earthquakes?

The beauty of ruins.’

But paradoxically, it is in solitude that we are able to find or construct our most real selves. As Hubbard points out in ‘Travelling Alone,’

‘How did I get from there to here?
What route lead me in search
of a heart to call my own?
(…) Voices I don’t understand blow in
through the open window.
I pick up my pen and begin to write
unpacking these words to discover
what I’ve become.’

In the words of Fernando Pessoa, the poet of saudade, ‘tudo vale a pena/quando a alma não é pequena,’ roughly translated, ‘All is worthwhile when the soul is not small.’ Sue Hubbard’s Swimming to Albania is an extraordinary achievement of poetic craft, forging a self characterised by depth of soul, unflinching courage, and literary sensibility.
Susan Castillo Street, Ink Sweat and Tears

Click for interviews…

Sue Hubbard presents a programme focused on her fourth poetry collection, Swimming to Albania on Clear Spot, Resonance FM:

Book launch and reading at Vout-O-Reenees:

Introduced by poet and sculptor Stephen Duncan:

Reading from Swimming to Albania at Salmon Bookshop, Ennistymon, Co Clare:

Publication details

Salmon Poetry
76 pages
ISBN: 9781912561063

Turner Prize 2021: A Collective Experience

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

For reasons lost in the mists of time, the city of Coventry is where you’re purportedly sent when socially ostracised, as well as where the first British car was built by Daimler in 1897.

It’s also the city forever linked with the original Peeping Tom who, in the eleventh century as Lady Godiva reportedly rode on horseback naked through the streets in protest against her husband’s repressive tax demands, peeked while the other townsfolk turned away. In World War II, the city – it manufactured cars, bicycles, aeroplane engines and munitions – was decimated by German bombing. The 14th of November 1940 saw the single most concentrated attack on a British city in the Second World War. Hitler’s retaliation, it was said, for an RAF attack on Munich. The city lost its central library, market hall, hundreds of shops and the 16th century Palace Yard, where James II once held court. The fire at the city’s huge Daimler works was one of the biggest of the war in Britain. But, most devastatingly, the city lost its medieval cathedral.

The times reflect a national moment of togetherness, empathy and collectivism

In 1940 Sir Basel Spence’s great modernist replacement rose like a phoenix beside the ruins. It’s a glory of post-war art and architecture with its huge tapestry by Graham Sutherland, its dazzling Baptistry window designed by John Piper and constructed by Patrick Reyntens, a lectern in the form of an eagle by Elizabeth Frink and the huge candlesticks by the potter Hans Coper. This year Coventry has been voted the UK City of Culture and is host to the Turner Prize, now one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary art prizes established in 1984 to promote public debate around new developments in art. It has a lot to live up to in this city.

In a year dominated by the pandemic, it was decided not to award the prize to an individual but to a collective. Those chosen include the Belfast-based Array Collective that makes work around ideas of national culture, myth and folklore. B.O.S.S. who organise events focused on a collectively built sound system that brings together “queer, trans and non-binary black people and people of colour”, Cooking Sections, a London-based duo whose films and installations explore the ethical issues surrounding ecology and the mass production of food. Gentle/Radical, centred on Cardiff’s Riverside neighbourhood, that shares experiences of ‘culture’ in its broadest sense and Project Art Works, a Hastings-based enterprise that helps ‘neurodivergent’ artists develop their creative practices. All, we are told, “share a belief in art’s capacity to replenish our reservoirs of hope”.

This seems a tall order and one that the great thinker, George Steiner, disavowed when he suggested that intelligent Germans had been quite happy listening to Schubert in the evening whilst gassing Jews by day and that culture and art actually change nothing. But we live in different times. The Cultural Director of the Herbert Art Gallery – this year’s host to the prize – suggested that the times reflect “a national moment of togetherness, empathy and collectivism.” But is that really the case? Of course, the work takes us back to that hoary old chestnut, the question: ‘but is it art? Is political and social activism the same thing? It can certainly be creative and artistic but isn’t it, well, different? There’s a danger that art made by a collective rather than an individual undercuts the essential existential quest that’s a fundamental characteristic of most lasting art.

Gentle/Radical Photo: Sue Hubbard

Gentle/Radical was established in 2017. A collaboration of activists, faith ministers and youth workers etc.., they have filmed monologues and conversations in which they discuss issues such as how to raise children beyond the nuclear family and they come together to sing Welsh Gorsedd bardic prayers, written in the 18th and lost to the colonising English culture. There’s no doubt it’s all very worthy, very heartfelt, but it seems rather the stuff of the documentary film, closer to Old Mass Observation projects than to art.

Array Collective Photo: Sue Hubbard

Array Collective is slicker. An imagined síbín (a pub without permission) has been installed in the Herbet. It’s wonderfully atmospheric with fags stubbed out in the ashtrays and packets of crisps on the round tables, along with all the nick-nacks associated with an Irish pub. Whilst sitting there, we’re invited to witness the Druthaib’s Ball – “a celebration of life and death, a wake for the centenary of Ireland’s partition”. There’s some evocative and melancholy traditional singing by a woman in floaty robes with a rather good voice and lots of storytelling, fiddle playing and dancing. Everyone seems to be having a great time. That Northern Ireland and the Republic have been scared by sectarian division is beyond doubt, but, again, the film feels like a documentary and there’s the sense that the viewer is an outsider, simply watching other people have fun.

lack Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S) Photo: Sue Hubbard

The weakest offering in the show is Black Obsidian Sound System (B.O.S.S). Bringing together queer, trans and non-binary black people and people of colour, the exhibition features two distinct but connected spaces. The inner space is a reconfiguration of The only Good System is a Sound System, an immersive environment of film, light and sound, already shown at FACT for the Liverpool Biennial. The work claims to reflect “ways in which marginalised groups have developed methods of coming together against a background of repression and discrimination.” No one could deny that this is an admirable aim and of value to those involved in setting it up, but does such a ‘woke’ agenda produce good art or simply political or social activism? It’s a coldly techno piece, considering it’s about something with which so many feel passionately engaged. By making everything ‘art’, aren’t we in danger of making nothing art, of taking away art’s philosophical and existential core?

Cooking Sections Salmon: Traces of Escapees. Cooking Sections, 2021 (film still)

Perhaps the most slickly professional work is that produced by Cooking Sections made up of duo Daniel Fernandez Pascual and Alon Schwabe, who use food as a lens with which to explore the impact that commercial food practices have on both humanity and the environment. Beautifully presented in a darkened gallery space, an audio and film installation explores the environmental impact of salmon farms in Scotland. A series of round open-net pens are projected in big blue circles on the gallery floor. Excrement, drugs, synthetic colours and parasites billow out into the surrounding sea waters. CLIMAVORE is a long term project that questions how humans change the environment and the pair have been successful in persuading many restaurants to take farmed salmon off the menu. This would have been an important outcome in its own right, but the piece goes beyond activism. The words and images suggest allegories of human behaviour. These may be salmon they are talking about, but the work metamorphoses into an exploration of contemporary existence becoming more than its subject matter.

Project Art Works, Hastings Photo: Sue Hubbard

Project Art Works, based in Hastings, collaborates with people who have complex emotional and physical needs, challenging paradigms of inclusion whilst working towards a greater understanding of neurodiversity. A film showing a group of users in a bothy in Scotland is extremely moving as we watch them respond to the beauty of the wilderness despite their individual challenges. A number of their drawings and paintings are on display. By any standards, many are highly accomplished; in a Turner Prize built on notions of the collective, these unique voices, born out of individual struggle and a desire for expression, emphasise the fact that, in the end, art is a solitary act, not something made by a collective or a committee. As Gaston Bachelard suggests, it’s an process of daydreaming. Truth is a constellation of ideas, not a didactic statement, A way of discovering what we don’t know about the world and ourselves. An exploration. A journey. Not a political manifesto.

Words/Photos: Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2021

Published in Artlyst

Chris Ofili: The Holy Virgin Mary

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

In October 1999, when the exhibition Sensation opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Mayor Rudy Giuliani – he of the running hair dye and lawyer to Trump – threatened to close it down on the grounds that the image of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary was religiously offensive.

The jewel-like surface of the painting is made up of a shimmering gold ground – SH

Whilst the negative reaction to the exhibition in this country was largely based around Marcus Harvey’s gratuitous image of the Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley, created from a series of child handprints, for America, a pious country that believes it has a God on its side, an African Virgin Mary perched on two large balls of dried elephant dung was simply too much for the righteous people of the US of A to put up with. In protest, an elderly visitor declared it ‘blasphemous’ and smeared it in white paint.

Chris Ofili: The Holy Virgin Mary
Photo: P C Robinson Artlyst 2015

Now, if that elderly visitor had read his Durkheim, he’d have realised that the sacred and the profane are two sides of the same coin. The sacred-profane dichotomy was a concept suggested by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim whereby: “religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden.” According to Durkheim, the sacred represents the interests of the community embodied in holy objects and totems, whilst the profane involved everything else that concerned daily life. Durkheim explicitly stated that the sacred–profane binary was not equivalent to a system of good and evil. The sacred might be either, as could be the profane. After all, the sacred could not really be sacred unless there was a concept of the profane to counter it. In fact, what counts as sacred and what counts as profane is often deeply ambiguous. For example, blood is profane to many Jews and Muslims but drunk as the blood of Christ in the Christian sacrament. Sex is taboo to many religions, which is why Mary was a virgin, but Herodotus suggested that the practice of sacred prostitution was practised in the temples of Babylonia and the Near East.

Standing on two balls of elephant dung inscribed with glittering letters that spell out the title of the work, Chris Ofili’s Virgin stares out directly at the viewer with her large googly eyes. The thick lips of her big mouth are sensually parted. She has a broad nose. It’s as if all the white tropes and caricatures of a black women have been brought together here but, in this case, are being used ironically by a black artist to suggest to his (presumably) largely white audience that they cannot see a black woman without sexualising her. The ubiquitous blue gown associated with the Virgin Mary falls open over her curvaceous body to reveal a sphere of lacquered elephant dung where her breast should be, and she is surrounded by cut out images from pornographic magazines of women’s buttocks, playing, again, with racial stereotypes around sexuality, availability and blackness. There is wit, here, too. For as Jesus’s was a Virgin birth, sex, let alone pornography, probably had little to do with it.

The image also asks us to consider why the Virgin shouldn’t have been black – a distinct possibility from the part of the world from which she hailed – and a critique of the assumed Anglo-Saxon Sunday School whiteness of many biblical figures. Ofili has said that: “As an altar boy, I was confused by the idea of a holy Virgin Mary giving birth to a young boy. Now when I go to the National Gallery and see paintings of the Virgin Mary, I see how sexually charged they are. Mine is simply a ‘hip hop’ version”.

The jewel-like surface of the painting is made up of a shimmering gold ground created from dots of paint and glitter. This use of gold makes reference to the icons of the Byzantine world. Gold has been used in art as far back as the Incas, who believed it to be ‘the tears of the sun and in western Christian art, it symbolises the transcendent, divine light that embodies the invisible, spiritual world. It has also been used in the background to mosaics and altar triptych panels, in both Christian and Islamic illuminated manuscripts, as well as in the unique Passover text, the Golden Haggadah (c1320-1330), that probably belonged to a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family in Spain. The psychedelic patterning, bright colours and batik inspired textured surfaces pay homage to African wax prints, known as Ankara and Dutch wax prints. These are a type of nonverbal communication between African women carrying their messages out into the world, with many named after cities or celebrities, places or specific occasions.

Born in Manchester to Nigerian parents, Ofili was awarded a British Council grant in 1992, which had a big impact on his work. This he used not to return to his homeland but to visit Zimbabwe, where he was inspired by the abstract rock paintings of the San Bushmen, the oldest inhabitants of Southern Africa, hunter-gatherers who’ve lived in the region for at least 20,000. As a result, his work became as concerned with decoration and visual sensuality as with politics. If Rudy Giuliani had had a little more culture, he might have realised that by incorporating high and low art and art historical narratives along with religious imagery and pop culture that Ofili was making a deeply eloquent and relevant contemporary image of the Virgin Mary for our times.

Published in Artlyst

Hannah Collins, El Tiempo del Fuego at Maureen Paley

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

HANNAH COLLINS Salt (5), 1996 silver gelatin print mounted on canvas 220 x 263 cm
© Hannah Collins, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Photography is a kind of language that has its own vocabulary. It might be black and white or colour. A modest holiday snap or a snatched press photo. By its nature black and white photography is an abstraction of reality that allows for the dramatic modification of tonal contrasts and densities, a distilling of the world. In today’s culture it announces itself as serious, in contrast to the gaudy razmataz of coloured imagery that shouts out from every advertising hoarding, every video game.

Born in 1956 Hannah Collins came to prominence in 1993 with a Turner prize nomination. Collective memory and the spaces that mark our social and cultural history are the hallmarks of her work, as is history, transformation and loss. Her photographs have a rare authenticity in a world dominated by indifference or irony. Ten years ago she discovered that she had cancer. Lying in hospital, hooked up to machines, she longed for the healing properties of nature. A year later she found herself in the Columbian Amazon where she worked with a small group from the Cofan tribe, learning about the plants used to sustain their lives. During the dark days of lockdown, she revisited the images of the forest that had offered healing and transformation.

One evening, whilst walking through the jungle with a local shaman, he’d cut a groove in a copal tree and lit a small, flickering flame that gave light but didn’t burn the tree. As they walked he continued to cut and light trees to illuminate a path back after their night-time excursion. In Collin’s silver gelatine print, Small Flame Copal Tree 1, 2001, the flickering flame stands as a beacon in the psychic dark of illness. Whilst Flaming Forest 2001, a large pigment print on paper suggests, with its heightened black and white contrasts, the uncanny, the chthonic and the dark forest of the Freudian unconscious. What the viewer experiences is a world of heightened senses where the mysteries of existence might be revealed.

To take photographs is to name what we don’t always understand and cannot articulate. As Susan Sontag suggested. “Photography [is] one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” Fire, for Hannah Collins, is a metaphor for transformation that emphasises the fleeting fragility and interdependence of all life and stands for the flame that burns within the human imagination, even in our darkest of times.

Ash, charcoal and salt. It’s as if Hannah Collins is creating her own alchemical lexicon of base elements. A cone of salt, Salt (5) 1996, stands like Lot’s wife, white against a deep black ground. Made in Barcelona, when she lived 30 years ago, ‘ before globalization when trade and commerce were visible through accumulation rather than packaging’, the naturally dried salt from the Mediterranean took many months to crystalise before being photographed. After the shot it was returned to the sea from whence it came, thus emphasising our cycles of interdependence with the natural world.

Displayed throughout the exhibition is a series of wax candles in vitrines, each carved with leaves and exotic Amazonian flowers. All have charred wicks. Not listed as art works, they sit like votive offerings protecting what feels to have been turned into a sacred space. Throughout, ashes and fissures suggest entry points into other dimensions, other realms. In the Mexican State of Michoacan, a farmer experienced the eruption of a volcano that was initially gushing smoke and flames from a small fissure in the earth. In her silver gelatine print Paricutin 2021, Collin’s shows the classical tower that emerged to stand like an altar piece or a sacrificial table.

The alchemical properties of fire are further explored in a very different geographical location. In the Course of time (12) Small Fire 1966, documents a redundant industrial setting in Silesia, Poland, created during the old Soviet regime. With the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War, coal dependent factories fell into disrepair. Many were abandoned, left to a lone caretaker to oversee, who’d burn bits of these huge ghost buildings to stay warm. Bricks were stolen and used for other purposes. Once the power houses of the Soviet regime, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, these buildings decay so eventually nothing will remain. Kings, political regimes, and industrial might, all fall away to become so much ash in a constant cycle of metamorphosis.

In the silver gelatine print, 120 Years Ago Today, 2019-20, extra-terrestrial bodies flash across the heavens over the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. These pathways of starlight connect us to time past and time future, to eternity and nothingness. As Roland Barthes noted in his seminal Camera Lucida, all photography is an agent of death. ‘Death’, he observes ‘must be somewhere in a society, if it is no longer (or less intensely) in religion, it must be elsewhere, perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life. Contemporary with the withdrawal of rites, Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymoblic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death. Life/Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print.’

Hannah Collin’s photographs function like dreams, like shamanic devises with which to explore other states of consciousness. To use Barthes description, they are similar to haikus, for the haiku, is ‘undevelopable: everything is given, without provoking the desire for or even the possibility of rhetorical expansion.’ The photograph is trapped in the past, without a future, it is a sort of embalming, a sort of death. It’s this mournful poetry that Hannah Collins illustrates in these sparks and flames, the shooting stars and pillar of salt.

HANNAH COLLINS 120 years ago today, 2021 silver gelatin printframe: 61.8 x 49.8 x 3 cm
© Hannah Collins, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

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Brash Is Beautiful – Yinka Saves The Day At Royal Academy Summer Show

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Art Criticism

When the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, one of its key aims was to establish an annual exhibition open to all artists ‘of merit’ (as long, one might add, that they were white, male and mostly middle class). Held every year since the Summer Exhibition is the world’s oldest submission exhibition with works selected and hung by Academicians. Originally all work was figurative. Paintings were hung from dado to cornice, abutted and tipped towards the viewer and arranged symmetrically. History painting dominated, along with vanity portraits by artists of the day. Celebrity painters such as Joshua Reynolds got the best spaces, whilst the work of the lesser-known was hung almost at ceiling height. It was, also, coincidentally a period when Britain’s involvement with the slave trade was at its height.

The exhibition starts with a bang – SH

Since then, the exhibition has been a marker in the establishment’s social calendar, along with events such as Henley and Wimbledon. A favourite of ladies who lunch and those up for the day from the shires. For years it was the zenith for Sunday painters who’d religiously send in their cat paintings and flower arrangements. But, in the topsy turvy world of Covid, this year’s exhibition had to be delayed. This may not signify very much, other than that we’ve been in the midst of a pandemic, but with this shift, there’s been a further breaking of old moulds. The exhibition starts with a bang, mirroring the changes within contemporary society and the role played by those from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

This year’s show has been coordinated by Yinka Shonibare RA, who has stamped it with his mark, the explorations pursued in his own work into colonialism and post-colonialism, race, class and cultural identity. Marginalised voices have been restored, and many artists are showing here for the first time. There’s a strong visceral feel to the show, which includes quilting, knitting and sculpture made from non-art materials, as well as more traditional painting, and the parameters have been expanded to include sound works. There’s a sense of things finding their rightful place, of the marginalised finally being included and brought into the fold.

Lecture Room, RA Summer Exhibition 2021

This year’s theme, ‘Reclaiming Magic’, not only celebrates the joy of making art but also its transformative potential, marginalised practices and ritual powers. The journey begins with the work of Bill Taylor, an African American artist born into slavery in 1854, who didn’t start making art until he was 85. Self-taught, his work inspired the idea of looking beyond the conventional boundaries of western art history. Shonibare has invited a number of international black artists to exhibit, including Michael Armitage and Betye Saar. Ellen Gallagher’s Elephantine, a map of Africa, has an elephant’s head embedded in the colours of the Belgium flag, while Kudzania Chuira’s single-channel film, We live in Silence (Chapters 1-7), is a cross between The Last Supper and a Bacchanalian orgy with militaristic overtones. One of the most disquieting works is an offset print by the black American artist Faith Ringgold, The United States of Attica. A red and green map of the United States, it is dedicated to the men who died in 1971 at the Attica prison for demonstrating against deplorable conditions. Written across each state are descriptions of various unspeakable acts – witch hunts and lynchings – that took place. At the bottom of the work is a direct appeal to viewers to update the poster.

RA Summer Exhibition 2021

This year’s curators include Humphrey Ocean and Bob and Roberta Smith, Vanessa Jackson and Eva Rothchild, and the energy remains high octane throughout with a shiny lipstick red painting by Gary Hume and a vast red and white floor-seated pineapple by Rose Wylie that has all the wacky playfulness of the outsider artist. There’s a great work by Frank Bowling made from what can only be called rubbish and strong paintings by British academicians such as Basil Beattie, Tony Bevan and Mali Morris, with some lovely little figures by David Remfry. But it is the energy of those artists who would have never got a look in during Joshua Reynold’s day, who’d have been serving the drinks to their bewigged ‘masters’, that gives this summer exhibition its freshness and vitality. Finally, it is they who get to go to Varnishing Day and the RA dinner – it’s almost grounds for optimism.

Photos: PC Robinson © Artlyst 2021

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Shape Chroma: Katrina Blannin, Caroline List, Laurence Noga At Tension Fine Art

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Art Criticism

Shape Chroma: Tension Fine Art London: Newton and Goethe famously disagreed on the genesis of colour. Most commentary assumes Goethe was wrong. But this is true only if you accept that colour can simply be described by physics and that psychological and conceptual components have no influence on the way that we see.

The highest goal a man can achieve is amazement – Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe was a philosopher who understood the drift of thought in 19th century Europe. He was a romantic who’d grasped an important flaw in empiricism: the impossibility of objectivity. In the 19th century, the art historian Charles Blanc explored the laws of ‘simultaneous contrast’, drawing from the theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul and Eugène Delacroix, to suggest that optical mixing would produce more vibrant colour than the traditional process of mixing pigments. Science, psychology and, particularly, contemporary technology have moved on since then, but the fundamental dichotomy remains. How do we see and respond to shape and colour? As Jules Olitski wrote in Artforum in 1967, “the development of colour structure ultimately determines its expansion or compression – its outer edge. I think…of colour as being seen in and throughout, not solely on, the surface”.

Laurence Noga, construction / assemblage, collage, paint, mixed-media – 2020

Shape Chroma is a ‘trialogue’ curated by the artist Caroline List between three painters: herself, Laurence Noga and Katrina Blannin, who bring these questions into the realm of contemporary aesthetics with different explorations into colour, shape and spatial illusion. No single issue has been more fundamental to modernist painting than the acknowledgement of flatness or two-dimensionality, but the power of the mark to suggest illusion and depth belongs not so much to painting as to the eye.

Exploring chromatic interactions, constructed and illusionistic space, each artist has created new painterly conversations in the light of Modernist abstraction and contemporary digital influences, highlighting the Goethe/Newton dichotomy between reason and the poetic.

Katrina Blannin’s meticulously layered geometric forms focus on complex systems of repetition and mathematics. Palindromic and isochromatic structures are used to produce paintings full of logical clarity that re-examine the history of colour theory and early Renaissance painting, which she explores within the context of 20th-century constructivism. Working with acrylic on a medium-textured linen, she generates fresh debates around the possibilities for the painted surface.

Nostalgia collides with a synthetic colour palette in the work of Laurence Noga, combining an industrial aesthetic with pure geometry. Layering collage, colour and mixed media, he plunders memorabilia from his father’s garage – tools, packets and washers – to evoke Proustian memories. An interest in the Bauhaus influences his choice of colour, setting up unpredictable surfaces and depths of field that draw the viewer into his discombobulating world.

Working on linen, board, paper and aluminium Caroline List creates luminous paintings full of sensuous hues that explore the spatial qualities of colour in relationship to form and ground, defined by their differing absorbances. Drawing on early 20th-century abstraction and virtual screen photography, her work implicitly refers to landscapes, organic shapes and atmospheric light. Using high key pigments and fluorescents full of transparency and opacity, her works, despite their sophisticated geometry, create links to the saturated colour fields of Rothko and the spiritual, otherworldly light of Caspar David Friedrich.

Katrina Blannin, ‘Piero Sequence #5 (P)’ 2019, acrylic on linen, diptych 2 x 40cm x 40cm

Colour is not ‘out there’ in the world – painted onto roses and snowdrops – but formed in our eye, mind and, even our hearts. Our perceptual apparatus creates colour filtered through our emotional state and cultural biases. An ambitious, visually intelligent show, Shape Chroma revisits art history to revivify what’s gone before in order to construct a new 21st-century grammar in which to re-examine these questions of colour theory and form. So whilst knowing physics is, undoubtedly, technically useful, it’s on the other side of perception that meaning and artistry reside, as is articulately illustrated by these three.

Shape Chroma: Katrina Blannin – Caroline List – Laurence Noga – Tension Fine Art – 17th September-16th October 135 Maple Road London SE20 8LP

Top Image: Caroline List, Oil & black gesso on linen, ‘Chroma Shape’ series (2020)

Tension Fine Art is a gallery dedicated to showcasing the work and raising the profiles of emerging and mid-career local, national and international artists. They show a mixture of contemporary & experimental art that questions what art is and what art could be.

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Sean Scully: Paul 1984

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Artlyst Significant Works

What is painting for? Since the advent of the camera in the 19th century, its role has no longer been to transcribe reality – the photographic lens can do that with greater accuracy – but to interpret, through paint, what verbal language cannot: what it feels like to experience the world through our visual senses. No contemporary painter does this better than Sean Scully.

His blocks of muted colour evoke people, places, emotions and memories – SH

Many have dismissed his work as a series of coloured bricks or stripes, seeing him as an exclusively abstract painter, but that is to misunderstand his simplified rectangular forms. I have interviewed him numerous times. Behind his gruff exterior is a storyteller. A mythmaker. Literature is important to him and informs his work. Many of the paintings take their titles from works that have influenced him, from Becket’s Molloy to Blake’s Tyger, Tyger. Though apparently abstract and influenced in the 1970s by American minimalism and the likes of Robert Mangold and Robert Ryman, his paintings moved away from this formal elegance and constrained minimalism to convey the emotional experience of being alive. Rothko, Scully argues, is a more important painter than Ad Reinhardt.

Sean Scully: Paul 1984 Collection Tate © Sean Scully

His blocks of muted colour evoke people, places, emotions and memories. Deceptively simple they are, in fact, highly sophisticated and considered. Not just aesthetically but psychodynamically potent, they thrum with restrained emotion. The relationships between them are uncanny and unsettling. The slim apertures between rectangles suggest that they’re simply the first layer in a complex palimpsest of vision and emotional revelation. Their deliberate lack of perfection and inbuilt flaws imply human vulnerability and depth, currents that go on beneath the quiet visible surface and sensual brush marks. Scully has said: “I reacted against the idea of perfection and the holistic masterpiece. I wanted to make realities that were more humanistic, where the problematic relationships between things could make a new kind of spirit and beauty.”

He has, in the past, talked to me about his paintings in anthropomorphic terms, in contradiction to Clement Greenberg’s strictures that all narrative must be expunged from abstract art. Like Morandi’s bottles, the negative spaces between his coloured blocks speak of the relationships between people and the difficulty of intimacy, communion and connection. He may present as a Modernist, but underneath lurks a Romantic, one who has deep knowledge of the canon of western art on which he draws to expand his grammar of contemporary art.

Perhaps no other painting exemplifies this compressed emotion more articulately than ‘Paul’ (1984), an elegy to his 18-year-old, estranged son who was killed in a car crash. The broad sand and black horizontal stripes on the left of the canvas are violently halted by two columns of three vertical stripes that form a solid wall. There’s a small black space between the horizontal and the vertical areas where the cream-white paint forms a jagged rather than a neat edge. It reads like a transitional space, the hiatus between life and death, between then and now, that moment and this. It is so subtle that it’s easy to miss but the distinction between the two states is palpable. The horizontal stripes in the left-hand panel are full of energy. They thrust forward with the verve of a young life moving into the future, only to be blocked and brutally curtailed by the unforgiving verticals.

All Scully’s paint surfaces suggest skin and, therefore, by implication, the body. The creamy paint, here, might be read as light, the light of a future that should have rolled out – full of possibility – ahead of an 18-year-old boy, only to be cancelled by a heavy bar of black. The rust-red, suggestive of a pulsating life force, is, again, cancelled by a thick black line. It’s hard, too, not to draw an analogy between that and the colour of dried blood or a wound.

The three distinct parts of the work suggest an altarpiece triptych, but one where grief has cancelled any narrative element. Close observation will reveal that the central vertical column has slipped, that the edges are not true at the top and the bottom, poignantly suggesting a young life prematurely slipping away. Normally Scully’s stripes open up a picture but here they violently shut it down. Despite its apparent formalism, the painting wrestles between light and darkness, past and future, night and day, life and its extinction.

But Scully is never didactic. He is too much of a Modernist for that. As with Agnes Martin, mood is suggested through the placement and subtle application of paint rather than spelt out. We, the viewer, are asked to be open and sensitive to his suggestions, reading his nuanced colours and blocks of paint like braille to reveal more than their simple shapes. There is, too, something filmic about the painting that can almost be read from left to right like a series of cinematic shots that move through time to reveal their narrative.

Scully makes works that deal with passion and grief, dreams and fears. What it is to be flawed, vulnerable and human. He wants his paintings to have impact, to speak viscerally to the viewer who will imbue them with their own stories, their own emotions and relationships. Like potent music, they catch a mood, speaking to what is universal. Even so, he believes that art cannot be popularised without robbing it of its central ‘difficulty’ and thus its ‘mystery and morality, which is crucial to its survival. Having long ago left behind the beliefs of his Catholic childhood (he is of Irish extraction), he retains some of its values, even though he states “that in a time of intellectual and spiritual anarchy the most we can aim for are degrees of similarity [of thought and belief]. Our sense of certainty is gone.” In the 1990s, he was trying to make his paintings as extreme as possible, saying that “my work is an attempt to release the spirit through formal strength and direct painting,” but slowly, they became less rigid. A hungry, restless yearning threads through his later work, which hold all the stories he would like to tell, all the emotions he’d like to share. These are compressed, in their painterly mark-making, into the rectangles of his paintings. and none more so than in Paul.

Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2021

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Marc Quinn: Alison Lapper Pregnant 2005

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Artlyst Significant Works

Marc Quinn: Alison Lapper Pregnant 2005: From gym ads to dating apps, from T.V. programmes on plastic surgery to how to look ten years younger, our contemporary obsession with the body beautiful is one that many ancient Greeks would recognise.

The idealised body found in Greek sculpture of the fifth century B.C. has been the most copied and influential artistic style in the west. Physical beauty for the Greeks was prized by both mortals and gods. At times it was difficult to distinguish between the secular and the sacred. Nakedness was seen as heroic, in contrast to the Judaic-Christian attitudes of shame and sin. The athletic male body with its rippling muscles and smooth boyish skin became the Apollonian ideal – the yardstick by which we have measured health and beauty for centuries. This stood in contrast to such pre-classical images as Minoan goddesses with their exposed breasts and serpent wands, or the Venus of Willendorf from the Upper Palaeolithic period, a small figurine with wide hips and no arms that represented chthonic female fecundity rather than honed masculinity.

Marc Quinn Alison Lapper Pregnant The Fourth Plinth 2005

Move forward a handful of centuries to the site around Trafalgar Square. Since the 1200s it has been an important London landmark. The present square, named after the British victory against the Spanish and the dastardly French on 21st October, off the Cape of Trafalgar, encompasses what was once the courtyard of the King’s Mews. After George IV moved these to Buckingham Palace, the area was redeveloped by John Nash. Around the central Nelson’s Column are four bronze lions by Landseer that speak, along with the surrounding buildings – Canada House and South Africa House, the church of St Martin in the Fields and The National Gallery – of British Imperial self-confidence Over the years the square has become synonymous with both New Year’s Eve gatherings and political demonstrations from the first Aldermaston march, to the poll-tax and anti-Brexit protests.

In each corner of the square is a plinth. On the southern two are statues of Henry Havelock – a Major General associated with the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and Charles James Napier – Commander-in-Chief of India 1839-40. The larger northern plinths, designed to hold equestrian statues, bear one of George IV, but the money ran out before the planned statue of William IV could be built on the fourth designed by Sir Charles Barry in 1841, that sits in the northwest corner.

In 2005 the Mayor of London, under the guidance of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, commissioned the artist Marc Quinn to make a contemporary sculpture to fill the space. It was an inspired choice. There, in the heartlands of classical and imperial power, Quinn placed a torso of his friend, the artist Alison Lapper. Born with phocomelia (no arms and shortened legs). Quinn’s bold 13-ton sculpture, carved from a single twelve-foot hunk of Carrara marble depicting Lapper eight months pregnant, challenged received ideas of classical beauty and establishment power. Questioned what it means to place a sculpture on a plinth to tower above the populace and who it is we decide to honour.

Marble has traditionally been associated with mythical heroes and gods, Michelangelo’s David, or the statue of Abraham Lincoln. The pregnant, armless Lappin stood proudly as a metaphor for our times, a powerful contemporary Venus de Milo, whose broken beauty brought her dignified disabilities centre stage. Lappin stood not just as herself, but as a metaphor for all those who have combated often hidden difficulties. Here was someone who had overcome enormous obstacles – she gained a first-class degree in fine art from Brighton University and an MBE – along with societal prejudice to sit among this plethora of male leaders: Amazonian, vulnerable, female and pregnant. There, among the selfie-taking tourists and the ubiquitous pigeons, Quinn gave us a different kind of heroism, an image of the struggle to deal with whatever life throws up. Later, in the form of a large-scale inflatable, the work would become the centrepiece for the 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony.

Always controversial (think of his recent Bristol sculpture of the Black Lives Matter Jen Reid raising her fist in a gesture associated with the civil rights movement of the 1960s that was almost immediately removed ) there were those that criticised Quinn for being an opportunist. An able-bodied artist who was making work about someone with disabilities. Lapper also had misgivings. Although she thinks the piece was fantastic, she’s said it would have been more remarkable if it had been a work by her that had been put on that plinth. At the time, despite being out of art school for 11 years, she had sold virtually nothing, while Quin was going from strength to strength.

So can art influence social attitudes? Perhaps. But nothing is black and white. The work no doubt, raised the visibility of those with disabilities and led to renewed debate. Would we have had Paralympians appearing on mainstream Strictly Come Dancing or acting as T.V. presenters before this? Yet another tragic truth is that Lapper’s son Paris – the child with whom she was pregnant on the plinth – was taunted and bullied throughout his childhood about his mother’s disabilities. Suffering with depression and anxiety, he was found dead in a hotel in Worthing, West Sussex, after a drug overdose. Art, it seems, can only change so much. Sadly, it did not manage to convince one young boy that the lives of both him and his mother were uniquely valuable.

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Mark Wallinger: State Britain 2007

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Artlyst Significant Works

Brian William Haw lived for almost ten years in Parliament Square. He was a thorn in the flesh of the British establishment and became a symbol of the anti-war movement against the conflicts first in Afghanistan and then Iraq. An evangelical Christian, he’d served in the Merchant Navy, worked as a removal man and had a wife and seven children, whom he left to set up his protest in 2001. A one-man political protest, his camp and banners were erected on the grass in Parliament Square, creating a striking contrast to the 19th-century architecture and seat of power across the road. After legal action, the Greater London Council relocated Haw and his assemblage to the pavement that was administered by Westminster City Council.

An attempt to prosecute for obstruction failed. Pedestrians, it was deemed, could get past the banners. A long legal tussle then ensued over Haw’s rights to protest in Parliament Square. In the early hours one May morning in 2006, 78 police arrived to remove his makeshift placards and objects – many of which had been donated by the public and included paintings, graffiti, and traffic cones, along with photos and posters of maimed and burnt babies that screamed ‘Blair Lie, Kids Die’ and ‘Baby Killers’. A Banksy stencil and a wooden cross with an image of Haw wearing a T-shirt emblazoned ‘Bliar’ across the front were among the centrepieces.

Mark Wallinger 2016 © Artlyst

The operation to remove Haw cost the Metropolitan Police £27.000 and in 2007, the Channel 4 Political Awards voted him the Most Inspiring Political Figure. In the same year, the artist Mark Wallinger painstakingly recreated Haw’s weather-beaten placards, peace flags and banners, along with the many messages amassed from well-wishers to create an installation in the Tate Britain’s Duveen Hall. It even included Haw’s makeshift tarpaulin shelter and tea-making area.

During the fabrication of the forty-three-meter work, it became clear that the Duveen Hall of Tate actually fell within the circumference of the one-kilometer exclusion zone inside which, under the recently passed Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, protests against parliament could not take place without police permission. Wallinger taped a line on the floor of the gallery at the point where the exclusion zone ended, deliberately placing State Britain half in and half outside the zone. It was both a challenge and a provocation. By straddling this invisible boundary, was Haw’s collection of objects – now transmogrified into art – breaking the law? Mirroring the original assemblage in every detail, was it subject to the same legal constraints that it had been outside, or had it now been transformed into something ‘safe’, art displayed in an institution supported by taxpayers money for the consumption of the liberal elite? Was this a brave act by Wallinger – challenging questions around freedom of expression and the erosion of civil liberties – or an act of appropriation by a sophisticated, knowing artist at the height of postmodernism when everything was turning out to be a pastiche or simulacrum? Was Wallinger’s recreation a form of political solidarity, or did it turn viewers into cultural voyeurs? Was this collection of sanitised street ephemera, in fact, really the equivalent of crowds paying to gawp at the bearded lady in a fair?

Often associated with the YBA generation of artists who were grabbing attention in the early 2000s, Mark Wallinger was, in fact, older by nearly a decade. While for most of them, nothing much mattered except irony and high visibility, Wallinger had grown up in a political household and was politically sophisticated. While living and working in Germany in the early 2000’s he missed the big anti-war march in London but was much taken on his return by Haw’s presence and began to photograph what he felt was a daring, moving and informative assemblage that was making points few conventional news outlets dared to make at the time.

Once Wallinger had the idea of recreating Haw’s protest, he approached the artist, who gave him his full support. Copyright had to be obtained for the different photographs, but as Haw had made the majority of the banners himself, he was able to help Wallinger source the necessary material for their recreation. The Tate held a special opening for Haw and his family and the work was nominated and later won the Turner Prize.

But there were those who had difficulty with the piece. It included a copy of a painting by one Abby Johnson, a member of the Stuckist protest group that promoted figurative art in the face of postmodern conceptualism. She’d given it to Haw as part of the original protest and objected that Wallinger’s installation was simply a conceptual fake, insisting that she and the other people who had donated to the original display were the real artists. What, some asked, if Haw had gone to the Tate himself and said – look, Nick, the rozzers are about to obliterate my stuff, how about you find me a spot for it in the Duveen Hall? He’d likely have been thrown out with a flea in his ear. But when Mark Wallinger, the artist of ces jours-ci who’d just represented Britain at the Venice Biennale suggested it, it was given the go-ahead. It had now turned into edgy art in line with Duchamp’s idea of the readymade. Only this had the problem of not being readymade (or as Boris might say now, oven-ready) but a copy.

Yet might it be argued that its performative element fitted Derrida’s contention that ‘[i]terability requires the origin to repeat itself originally; to alter itself so as to have the value of origin, that is to conserve itself.’ (French philosophers had the habit of being that arcane and pretentious in the early part of the century). Perhaps, then, the justification for Wallinger’s ‘copy’ was that it added the potential for not just a new audience but for new modes of reading and interpretation. Wallinger’s drawing attention to the boundary line that would have rendered the piece illegal outside the gallery while it was tolerated within only served to emphasise the double standards of establishment power structures and showed State Britain to be a clever, radical and hard-hitting piece of work.

Haw died in Germany in 2011, where he had gone for treatment for lung cancer. Before he left, Wallinger went to visit him at Guy’s Hospital. He was, he says ‘the most obstinate protester you could imagine. The last protester really….it was like everybody else gave up, but he never did…. And he was proved right; we know we went to war on lie. Now he’s gone, who else have we got?’ Brian Haw was the last of a kind, and Mark Wallinger’s State Britain stands as a fitting memorial to his stubborn idealism.

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Cecily Brown: The Girl Who Had Everything 1998

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Artlyst Significant Works

What would Turner think? Would he even have recognised the artist collectives nominated for this year’s prize in his name as art? His own concerns were for the luminosity and possibilities of paint, how it could be moved around the canvas to convey a fleeting moment, the changing weather, the turbulence of skies, the great storms out at sea, what it felt like to be part of this physical, sentient world. He even (probably apocryphally) lashed himself to the mast of a ship in the centre of a storm in order to experience it more fully.

The conceptualism that emerged in the late 1960s was a revolt against this romanticism that prevailed through the 19th century on into modernism, a movement Greenberg defined as the historic tendency of art towards autonomy, achieved by attention to the specifics of that practice, concerned with its traditions and materials, with its own set of practices that set it apart from other art practices. ‘Truth’ and ‘authenticity’ were the backdrop to this humanism. According to Victor Burgin “in post-modernist allegories ‘Truth’ has been replaced by the twins ‘Relativity’ and ‘Legitimation’. The collectives nominated for this year’s Turner prize are concerned with cooking, with the rights of QTIBPOC communities and other social issues that have come out of the pandemic – all worthy in their own way – but painting doesn’t get a look in. It’s as though it’s dropped off the artistic agenda. All through the 20th century painting was declared dead with predictable frequency, left playing catch up with Dadaism, conceptualism and other ‘isms’, scrambling to find a new, relevant language. Whether through the ocular distortions of cubism, the gut-felt intuition of Pollock’s drip-paintings or the spare minimalism of Agnes Martin, painting strove to re-invent itself, to stay new, to remain relevant. So what of painting now? Does it continue to have things to say that can’t be better explored in other media such as video, sculptural installations of even text? Has it run its course or is there still room for reinvention in this very limited and difficult medium concerned with making beguiling images on a flat surface.

Cecily Brown The Girl Who Had Everything, 1998

Cecily Brown is one such painter who has attempted to extend the life and language of painting. Born in London in 1969, she studied at the Slade School of Art, a college known for its historic connections to painting. Distancing herself from the emerging YBAs, she moved to NY in 1994 where she quickly gained attention for her work. Her major break came not long after her arrival when, in 1997, she had a solo show at Deitch Projects, ‘Spectacle,’ which featured a series of garishly coloured paintings of rabbits engaged in playful orgies. She soon become known for works that captured bodily sensation through the lush applications of paint. With true postmodernist panache she plundered ideas from Old Masters and the Abstract Expressionism of Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchel Brown, poached with aplomb whatever took her fancy from Goya to British landscape painting in order to create highly wrought works with a sense of intuitive abandon.

In her 1998 painting The Girl Who Had Everything, she melds the figurative and the abstract to create a new painterly grammar, filching the shiny bits of art history with magpie abandon. There’s an impudent irreverence to the voluptuous surface with its gut and blood reds and calamine pinks, its swirls of meaty colour reminiscent of Soutine and Bacon set alongside girly ice cream shades. A carnal sensuality to the explosive brush works and restless paint. A mix of tough knowingness and I-don’t-give-a-fuck, reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s chthonic Bacchus series. But where Twombly bought into the romanticism of classical myth, Brown’s lush carmine swirls swell and bloat erotically to suggest tumescent and menstruation with her tongue firmly in her postmodern cheek There’s sexuality and violence here, but it feels more porny, more playful, more Saturday night rave than distraught Bacchae.

And there’s a feminist edge. A bawdiness to the canvas similar to that expressed by the 18th century female sex workers in the racy TV series Harlots where they were distinctly mistresses of their own eroticism. Brown may be luxuriating in her fleshy tones, the sexuality of her visceral paint but there’s always something playful about the work, as if it’s giving you the wink and telling you not to take it too seriously. That it is fun, just glorious fun. And like all good feminist artists she’s busy inverting the male gaze, owing female sexuality from the inside out. There’s a constant change in perspective and tempo. Likened in the past to film that’s everchanging, her images coalesce, breakdown and fracture. Things morph and mutate like the music of a wild jazz musician pushing his discipline to the edge to see if it will collapse. Whilst she has said her paintings ‘are not usually a direct copy after one thing’, they metamorphose through the drawing process to ‘end up coming out in other twisted ways in the paintings’.

Painting may well have come close to needing life support in the last few decades, to have been left gasping on the gurney of an unappreciative artworld more interested in the instant gratification of video and performance, but Cecily Brown has shown that however many times it’s declared dead and the great gurus of art history called in to proclaim the last rites, there’s always an artist willing to find its pulse, to revive it into yet another lease of creative life.

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Rachel Whiteread: House 1993

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Artlyst Significant Works

In Grove Road, Mile End, there’s a plaque on the north side of the railway bridge that commemorates the first flying bomb to fall on London on 13th June 1944, a week after D-Day. The VI bomb-damaged houses in Antil Road, Burnside Street and Bellraven Street and destroyed the train line from Liverpool Street to Stratford, killing 6 people and injuring 42. A local recalled that they were all sworn to secrecy but that “the news got out soon enough”. The plague was put up in Grove Road by the Greater London Council in 1985 following the proposal of Joseph V Waters, a lifelong Easter Ender, whose brothers had been injured by the bomb.

As late as 1993, some of the terraced houses in Grove Road that had survived were still standing

Rachel Whiteread, then a thirty-year-old artist with a growing reputation, approached the last tenant, retired docker Sydney Gale, who’d lived at 193, to explain her desire to make an artwork out of his old home before it was demolished to create Wennington Green ‘part of a grand scheme to form green corridors connecting the heart of London to the suburbs.’ With the help of the public art organisation, Artangel, a temporary lease was obtained for the plot. Inside 193 held a wealth of treasures: cast iron fire grates, original mouldings, old light switches and wooden cupboards. The house was used as a mould and filled with concrete to create an imprint of the building before the outer structure was finally removed. It was an audacious and brilliant idea. Part mausoleum, part memorial to a lost way of life that captured the vanished rhythms and resonances of a dying East End community, its hidden histories, preserving them like flies in amber.

Rachel Whiteread Untitled (House) 1993 Commissioned by Artangel © The artist. Photo: Sue Ormerod

The piece fuelled intense local debate, along with a plethora of graffiti – WOT FOR?, WHY NOT? HOMES FOR ALL BLACK +WHITE. THIS HOUSE IS A NICE HOME, demonstrating, as Gaston Bachelard writes in Poetics of Space, that a house is not simply a building. All inhabited space, he argues, bears the essence of ‘home’. “Our house is our corner of the world…it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” Wherever humans find shelter, they attempt to create the illusion of protection. A house, however modest, is not just a physical space but a fortress against the rest of the world, the site of our daydreams and theatre of memories. Part of an ongoing narrative that tells us who we are, the screen onto which we project the chronicle of our lives. The storehouse and site for our longings and aspirations, disappointments and losses: birth, copulation and death, past, present and future.

When we dream of the house where we were born, it becomes a metaphor for our past. Vanished voices and lost lives are imprinted into the very fabric of the walls. For Bachelard, a phenomenologist with a strong sense of the psychoanalytic, the topography of the house with its cellars, attics, nooks and corridors acts as a bodily analogy. It’s the site of our most intimate lives, our hidden psychological dramas in which our memories are collected. Events and traumas are shut in dark basements, hidden in attics. Memories exist in spaces. We remember where things happened. The dark cupboard in which we hid in as a child. The house we built under a table. We only have to return to them in our mind’s eye to relive our deepest emotions. The smells and textures of childhood come back to us with Proustian accuracy. Was that room really so large? Ah yes, and there was that mustard coloured wallpaper, those diaphanous curtains. And what was that familiar smell?

Born in Ilford, Essex, in April 1963, Whiteread’s mother Patricia Whiteread was an artist who took part in the landmark feminist exhibitions Women’s Images of Men and About Time at the ICA in 1980. Her father, a geography lecturer, took her, as a child, on field trips. Hers was a home, a house in which she was surrounded by art, ideas and left-wing politics. It made her what she was to become. Later, she’d go on to study painting at Brighton Polytechnic and complete an MA in sculpture at the Slade. But it was at Brighton, under the guidance of Richard Wilson, that she began to learn casting. Disinterested in traditional techniques or in replicating objects, she was attracted to negative spaces, to the underneath of a table or the inside of a sink or a hot water bottle (these she cast for many years in pee-coloured resin and pink dental plaster). Two early works, Shallow Breath 1988 and Closet 1988, both recall the dark and dusty hiding places – the underside of a bed, the inside of a wardrobe – those bitter-sweet childhood games of hide-and-seek. Influenced by the austere minimalism of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, there is, however, always a sense of the flawed, the vulnerable and the imperfect. The ghostly presence of the original object lingers, for this is a poetry of the mundane: the ordinary, the every day, the barely seen.

It’s this potential for nostalgic recollection that made Whiteread’s House such a rich and original work and set the standard for her future public art commissions such as the austere and poignantly silent concrete Holocaust memorial in Judenplatz Vienna, built-in remembrance to the Jewish Austrian dead.

House stood for just 80 days and was a lightning rod for public debate around social issues such as redevelopment and housing, as well as public art. Unveiled on 25th October 1993, it led to Whiteread becoming the first woman and the youngest artist to be awarded the Turner Prize. Uncannily this was on the same day that Bow Neighbourhood Council refused an extension to the lease on 193 Grove Road. Despite a number of stays of execution (including a parliamentary petition), House was demolished on 11th January 1994 in what must amount to one of the great acts of bureaucratic vandalism by any local council. Yet, despite their collective philistinism, House had already infiltrated the cultural imagination, setting a new standard for public art to come.

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Paula Rego: The Policeman’s Daughter 1987

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Artlyst Significant Works

In an era when modernism was dictating that painting should abandon all connection to narrative, Paula Rego defiantly continued to tell stories, influenced by the Portuguese folk and fairy tales of her childhood. Born in Lisbon in 1935, she grew up under the jackboot of the fascist dictator António de Oliveria Salazar, who seized power in 1926 after a military coup, as Europe slowly slid towards the right. Although her father was liberal and anti-clerical, the febrile atmosphere of the surrounding conservative society created a profound anxiety in her as a child, causing her to withdraw into art as a way of making sense of and reimagining a world where she perceived that women had little voice and even less agency.

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

– Sylvia Plath, Daddy.

With their biomorphic shapes and Disneyesque figures, her early works show the influence of Surrealists such as Miro, along with the violent graphics of popular Portuguese comics, and feed into her ferocious sense of irony. Later, while living in London, Rego would take on Portugal’s political establishment and, in particular, its treatment of women. This reached its acme after the failure of the referendum to legalise abortion, in her searing landmark series painted between 1997-98. Here, women wracked with pain crouch on chamber pots and over plastic buckets or lie traumatised on their beds. As in most of Rego’s work, the idealised female of art history gives way to a lived, sentient reality. These are not the draped muses of the European canon offered for the male gaze but women with solid thighs and arms who bear children, cook and scrub floors, working women with their own sexual longings, vulnerabilities, subterranean angers and strengths.

Paula Rego The Policeman’s Daughter, 1987
Photo P C Robinson Artlyst 2021

Choosing one painting for this series, out of so many powerful works, was hard, but The Policeman’s Daughter 1987 seems to sum up Rego’s iconoclastic storytelling, her ability to create powerful psychological dramas and mise-en-scènes. A girl in a white dress with muscular arms and a grim chiselled face, one foot curled beneath her on a wooden dining chair, the other shod in a child’s white buttoned sandal balancing her sturdy body against the floor, thrusts her thick arm into a big black riding boot, which she’s busy polishing. The title tells us that she is a policeman’s daughter, so, by implication, the boot belongs to her father. A black jackboot, an emblem of machismo authority, her arm has slipped inside almost to her armpit. With its stark colours, it hard shadows and almost monochromatic palette, the painting suggests a disturbing sexual inversion, a perverse act of penetration, a symbol of deflowering, even rape. There’s the uneasy sense of taboo sexual practices, of domestic abuse and yet…. who, here, really has the power?

In his 1933 analysis of Fascism, Wilhelm Reich wrote: “the sexual effect of a uniform, the erotically provocative effect of rhythmically goose-stepping, the exhibitionist nature of militaristic procedures, have been more practically comprehended by a salesgirl or an average secretary than by our most erudite politicians”. Reich showed Fascism to be an extremely libidinal form of politics – theatrical, mesmerising, seductive and sadomasochistic – in its appeal to its female adherents. Sexual bondage and a yearning for domination permeates its imagery. Men of power from every political creed have made use of their authority for sexual favours (Stalin and Mao both enjoyed a harem of women). Still, Fascism was peculiar in the submissive adoration it inculcated in its female adherents. At its heart is a fascination with cruelty. The cruelty of socialism sends millions to their deaths in the deluded hope of engineering a new utopia. Still, the cruelty of the fascist is unashamedly machismo with its need to assert supremacy and control. As Aldous Huxley noted in his foreword to Brave New World: “As political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends to compensate to increase.” Sexual and political domination, it seems, go hand in hand.

Having spent more than 40 years in Jungian analysis, Paula Rego is wholly aware of the subversive symbolism she brings to her work. Yet, unlike Balthus’s images of pre-pubescent girls, her work is never voyeuristic or titillating. Not afraid to shock, she is never prurient but rather evokes our empathy and compassion. We, the viewer, do not gawp or gaze but identify with her subjects in all their multifaceted vulnerability and sneaky nastiness, their iconoclastic gleefulness at breaking free and subverting accepted norms. The sensual polishing of the father’s boot in The Policeman’s daughter suggests the forbidden delights of adolescent masturbation, the young girl dreaming of the handsome uniformed men who will dominate her as she pleasures herself. A black cat on the right of the picture standing on its hind legs conjures the slang word ‘pussy’ or the French ‘la chatte’, further adding a layer of sexual innuendo.

Allusive, multi-layered and enigmatic, nothing in Rego’s world is quite what it seems. Like the regulated religious Portuguese society in which she grew up, there’s what happens on the surface and there is what goes on behind lace curtains. The policeman’s daughter sits with her back to the window open onto a dark velvety night and the freedom it offers away from the claustrophobic constraints of the family. Yet, despite its allure, she goes on polishing. The sacrificial virgin is juxtaposed here with the authoritarian jackboot of Fascism, “the black shoe” to quote Sylvia Plath, “In which I have lived like a foot/For thirty years, poor and white,/Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.”

Despite these constraints, Rego’s girls and women are not victims but find ways to defy the sinister side of sexuality and family relationships. The Policeman’s Daughter isn’t cowered but defiant. By discovering her own sexual power, she gives voice to her simmering anger and sense of isolation, surreptitiously exacting revenge against a society that would keep her as a symbol of purity in her white dress, a virgin rather than a sexually knowing woman or a whore.

Drawing Paula Rego

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Imagining Landscapes – Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952-1976

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

‘A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.’
Helen Frankenthaler

The history of modern painting is that of a form which spent much of its energy on detaching itself from illusion in order to acquire its own frame of reference. As that guru of Modernism, Clement Greenberg, wrote: “The essence of Modernism lies… in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself…” Art was to be rendered ‘pure’ in its independence and self-definition, freed from the painterly dissembling of Old Masters with their illusionistic tendencies. As Greenberg insisted, “Where Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can only look, can travel through only with the eye.”

Revisiting Helen Frankenthaler’s saturated paintings at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, it seems that Greenberg was only partly right. The human mind makes associations, sees shapes and colours in terms of memories: objects and places, landscapes and wide skies. In his bid for purity, his desire to decouple painting from any possible narrative that might not be implicit within the medium itself, Greenberg’s strictures forgot the power of poetic metaphor that was to be explored in the 1960s in the phenomenological writings on perception of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Helen Frankenthaler’s art career was launched in 1952 with the exhibition Mountains and Sea. During the 50s her works tended to centre around pictorial incidents that took place in the middle of the picture space, where the edges were of little consequence. Slowly she began to experiment with more linear and organic shapes, eventually using single stains and blots of solid colour against plain white grounds, moving in 1963, to work in acrylic paint that allowed for a greater opacity.

Whilst intellectually acutely aware of the risks of placing a mark on a blank canvas, the influence of Jackson Pollock encouraged her away from her formal art training towards a fluid spontaneity. This allowed shapes and forms to develop on her canvas, to flow so that unconsciously they transformed into an image. Despite her awareness of spatial possibilities, of the pushed and pulled effects of the thinned pigments, the adjustment and blurring of her edges, it’s the emotional quality of these flooded works that give them their power. They are not simply intellectual exercises but felt, sentient works. Shapes open and close, coalesce and dissolve. Light is vibrant, then dematerialises, as in the luminous Sea Goddess, 1963 or Narcissus of the same year, suggesting the sense of being in the work, in a landscape or a sunset rather than describing a landscape or sunset of itself.

Sea Goddess, 1963, Oil on unsized, unprimed canvas, 70 x 94 in, 177.8 x 238.8 cm © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London, Photo: Robert McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

It was in the 1960s that the term Colour Field painting was used to describe Frankenthaler’s large areas of saturated colour. By the 70s, the soak and stain technique had given way to a thicker, brighter, almost Fauvist use of colour. The physical act of painting – as for Pollack – was an emotional one as she knelt on the floor, pouring and soaking her unsized duck cotton – manipulating the paint in her own personal choreography. Like Pollack, her paintings express her bodily relationship with the canvas – the stretch of an arm, the heft of her shoulder. Her soak-stained technique doesn’t portray the world in any graphic or photographic sense – though at times they do read like aerial views and it’s hard not to see a figure or landscape emerging from the pools of colour – but make demands on the viewers’ perception. Nothing feels quiet complete. There’s an invitation for the mind and the eye to take the image further, to run with it towards an, as yet, undefined totality. Frankenthaler’s art is one of incompleteness. Its signature is openness. It is not proscriptive, rather it’s a process, a reaching towards. There are the echoes of Rothko and Barnett Newman, of that Jewish mystical sensibility which permeated so much post-war American Abstract Expressionism. As in Rothko, there’s a sense of otherworldliness that goes beyond simply formal concerns. Though in Frankenthaler these states tend towards the joyful and the lyrical rather than dark introspection. As for many other modernists, accident played a big part in her process. A photograph in her studio on West End Avenue, New York, in 1957, shows her crouched over her canvas on the floor, a tube of paint in one hand, applying it with the fingers of the other. It’s a lyrical image. A beautiful young woman completely absorbed in the making of her art.

Born in 1928 to a wealthy, cultured and progressive Jewish family – her father was a New York State Supreme Court judge – unusually, for the period, Franthenthaler was encouraged to have a professional career and studied at the Dalton School under the muralist Rufino Tamayo and at Bennington College in Vermont. Pollock, Cubism and Ashile Gorky were all influences of her early mark-making. A five year romantic relationship with Clement Greenberg, then marriage to Robert Motherwell – they were known as the ‘golden couple’ – assured her a place at the high table of modernism in an era when American abstraction was largely seen as a male affair. This allowed her to develop a language of her own, with its liquid forms and dissolving edges, its challenging spatial and perceptual innovations that extended the boundaries of painting for future generations of women artists, allowing them the space to create a multiplicity of visual possibilities.

Imagining Landscapes: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1976 , installation view 2021 © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London Photo: Lucy Dawkins, Courtesy Gagosian

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Cacophony: Four Iranian Artists AB-ANBAR Cromwell Place

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Art Criticism

Few in the West will have been to Tehran. We are either likely to think of an exotic Persia full of sultans and hareems – the sort of orientalism debunked by Edward Said in his celebrated essay – or a modern-day Iran, a strict theocracy run by repressive Ayatollahs not too keen on our western ways. In fact, during the last century, few societies have experienced such a period of rapid modernisation as Iran. This is demonstrated by the rich flow of artistic ideas from within and without the country.

AB-ANBAR serves as a conduit between Iran and a broader global culture

In 2014 AB-ANBAR was set up in Tehran to create a platform for emerging cutting-edge artists and serve as a conduit between Iran and a broader global culture. The aim was not just to give voice to these artists but to create a dialogue with their occidental counterparts. In Tehran, the gallery’s primary audience consists of local artists and collectors, so the aim here is to introduce contemporary Iranian art to a wider world.

Situated at 4 Cromwell Place, AB-ANBAR’s current exhibition Cacophony is a showcase for four contemporary and modern Iranian artists, Sonia Balassanian, Majid, Fathizadeh, Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam and Timo Nasseri. The underlying concept is the inherent chaos and turmoil embedded within contemporary societies—the white noise of conflicting values and points of view. The wide range of work, from the chaotic painterly scenes of Fathizadeh to the experimental films of Balassanian and the modernist compositions of Timo and Vaziri, emphasise this diversity.

Majid Fathizadeh

Sonia Balassanian is a multimedia artist living and working between New York and Armenia whose practice took a dramatic turn after the 1979 events in Iran, turning an abstract painter into a political activist whose work has evolved to address issues of identity, gender and cultural contradiction. Here, her work consists of two diametrically opposed forms: video and abstract paintings made up of layers of acrylic paint or mixed media marks on photographic paper that contain echoes of Agnes Martin. But whereas Martin or Balassanian ’s compatriot, the painter Shirazeh Houshiary explore the spiritual sublime and the ineffable, there’s a sense that Sonia Balassanian ’s marks are more an act of erasure, a cancellation of something much darker. A deliberate deletion or form of emotional redaction of what is unsayable. The stanza structure of her lines references her practice as a poet, implying both rhythm and metre. Alongside these are three powerful videos: Chain, 1995 that emphasises her interest in ritual with a tough black and white close up of a Shia adherent engaged in the repetitive act of flagellation; 1555, 2009 a cacophony of three intoning voices that speak of the Armenian genocide in Farsi, Armenian and English and Haghpat 2, 1999, a stark, grainy video of naked bodies emerging from deep ceramic pots buried in the ground that seems to imply disappearance and re-emergence.

The modernist works of Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam stand in stark contrast to this psychodynamic output. The large aluminium, wood and painted wall construct, Untitled 1968-2015, conjures the fenders of shiny American Cadillacs and speaks of the ubiquitous optimism of modernity during that period. It evokes a world of shiny skyscrapers, American diners and jukeboxes, of new buildings and new possibilities. In contrast, his aluminium and yellow-painted wall sculpture, with its Fontana-like slashes, castes subtle ribbons of shadow in the negative spaces, playing with notions of inside and out to create a severe minimal beauty.

Born in Berlin in 1972, the son of a German mother and an Iranian father, Timo Nasseri grew up between two radically different cultures. Living and working in Berlin, drawing lies at the heart of his practice. He uses the influence of Islamic art, mathematics and geometry to explore systems of patterning and the architectural structures within infinity and chaos. A series of small black magnetic cut-outs – the silhouettes of frogs, axe heads and bats – displayed in a group on a white wall have something of the ethnographic museum about them. Entitled The Order of Everything, it suggests some sort of arcane hieroglyphic language which, if only the code could be cracked, might reveal the mysteries of the universe. Repetition is a strong aesthetic stimulus in Nasseri’s work reflected in his steel towers held together only by magnets, one of which is suitably entitled Babel #3. While his ‘totemic’ paintings in flat blacks, blues and reds take their inspiration from the ‘dazzle’ camouflage used for warships in World War I.

Majid Fathizadeh is based in Iran and employs the language of European Old Masters to explore not only the disasters of war but of the destruction of the biosphere. Pool Table 2021 is a painting full of dark sepia tones and tenebrous shadows. At once, absurdist and bleak, his cast of Goyaesque characters crawl around upturned, broken pool tables wearing strange masks and what appears to be a dunce’s cap. While Tendon shows a rabble of figures – refugees or outlaws, it’s hard to say – huddled on a hilltop overlooking a benighted landscape that appears to be the city of Tehran. A highly skilful painter and draughtsman, he encapsulates the diversity and reaches of contemporary Iranian art.

Cacophony AB-ANBAR June 2, 2021 – June 13, 2021 An exhibition featuring the work of four contemporary and modern artists from their gallery programme; Sonia Balassanian, Majid Fathizadeh, Mohsen Vaziri Moghaddam, and Timo Nasseri. Founded in 2014, AB-ANBAR is one of the leading independent galleries in Tehran.

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Eileen Agar:
A Surrealist Trailblazer

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Art Criticism

As a new young arts writer, I once went to Eileen Agar’s flat in Kensington. I honestly didn’t know who she was at that time. The flat was quite conventional, except for a few collages on the walls and her famous Bouillabaisse hat – constructed of cork and decorated with a large orange plastic flower, a blue plastic star, assorted shells, glass beads and starfish – sitting on a stand. Sadly, this was before the digital age and I’ve lost what I wrote about her. So, it was with real curiosity that I went along to the Whitechapel to see Angel of Anarchy and realised not only what an interesting artist she was, but how underrated she’s been.

Eileen Agar was one of the most adventurous of her generation.

Surrealism was not kind to women. Despite the creativity of the likes of Dorothea Tanning and Leonora Carrington, the work and even the names of many female surrealists are either lost or unknown. Surrealism was a man’s world despite its ‘high priest’, André Breton writing in 1944 that “it is high time for women’s ideas to prevail over man’s, whose bankruptcy is clear enough in the tumult of today.” Many talented female artists had to battle against their role as muses: Meret Oppenheim standing nude next to a printing press in a Man Ray photograph, the artist Unica Zürn depicted as a tied-up doll by Hans Bellmer. But women were fighting back, beginning to explore their own imaginations and psyches, refusing simply to be repositories for the male gaze and male desire.

Eileen Agar was one of the most adventurous of her generation. Born in Buenos Aires into a privileged family, a rebellious child, she was sent off at the achingly young age of six to board at Heathfield school in England. It was there that her teacher, Lucy Kemp-Welch RA, persuaded her to ‘always have something to do with art’. The rift with her parents grew and she took up a place at the Slade that was, at the time, the acme of traditional, figurative English painting. In 1929 she travelled to Paris, ripe for the conversion to Surrealism, and met André Breton and Paul Éluard, embracing the movement’s sensuality and irrationality, its explorations into the subconscious and the imaginative freedom it gave to explode existing norms.

The show at the Whitechapel opens with a series of stunning works on paper and board in watercolour and pencil, including Self Portrait 1927 and the previously unseen painting of her partner, Joseph Sleeping 1929, that show the influence of her art school education at the Slade. It was in Paris that she learnt the principles of Cubism which, along with Surrealism, were to become the hallmarks not just of modernism but of her future work. These influences can be seen in early works such as Autobiography of an Embryo 1933-4 and Quadriga 1935.

Collage and its sculptural twin, assemblage, were the two techniques that allowed her to collide unconnected images in ways that were witty, beautiful and at times insightfully disturbing. She became a magpie, rummaging in flea markets, and the collector of natural forms – shells, bones, leaves and fossils – that she used alongside cut-outs and drawn elements. “I surround myself”, she said, “with fantastic bric-à-brac in order to trigger my imagination. For it is a certain kind of sensitive chaos that is creative, and not sterile order”.

Fascinated with the natural world, she used this ‘sensitive chaos’ to juxtapose the manmade with the natural world to create provocative collages such as Erotic Landscape 1942. It is hard, now, to see just how radical some of her images would have seemed at the time. Attracted to the coastal rock formations “sculpted by the sea” when she travelled to France, these infiltrated her work in the manner of her contemporary Barbara Hepworth. A Rolleiflex square-format camera became her constant companion. This passion for photography led to some wonderfully intimate photographs of her relaxing on the beach with her surrealist friends, including Roland Penrose and a virile looking Picasso.

Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse, 1936

In 1936 Agar achieved overnight success when she took part in the first International Surrealist Exhibition in London at New Burlington Gardens, though the war was to interrupt her artistic output. A pacifist, she enlisted for war work in a canteen in Saville Row and as a Fire Watcher but “felt it impossible to concentrate on painting when you could turn to look out of the window and see a Messerschmitt flying low over the treetops.” After the war, she was ‘exhausted’ and visited both Cornwall and the Lake District in an attempt to replenish her artistic imagination. One of her most eccentric and charming works was her Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse. A black and white 1948 Pathé Newsreel shows her wearing it as she strides through Soho, past giggling delivery boys leaning on bicycles and gawping women with tight post-war perms and even tighter lips who can’t quite believe their eyes, all accompanied by a chirpy voiceover in BBC Alvar Lidell tones.

For the rest of her life, Agar went on experimenting, travelling in the ‘50s to Tenerife, a trip that was to become a watershed in her life. Later, she moved to a much larger studio that allowed her to paint on a scale she’d not been able to before and to work in acrylic. Although many of these later works show the characteristic Agar motifs -shells, fossils and silhouetted forms – they’re more deliberate and lack the verve and playfulness of her early work. Prolific until her death, she was a trailblazer with her experiments in Surrealist fashion design, modelling for Issey Miyake at the age of 87.

Surrealism both infantilised and empowered women. Male Surrealists often portrayed the female form as an object of violent erotic imaginings whilst idealising women as beautiful, mysterious muses. Eileen Agar was able to find her own way through this male terrain, relying less on the Freudian themes beloved by other female artists such as Meret Oppenheim and Leonora Carrington but rather on the opportunities that Surrealism gave her for playful and innovative visual juxtapositions. Long overdue, this retrospective at the Whitechapel will rightly secure her reputation, bringing her to a new generation of viewers.

Eileen Agar: Angel of Anarchy, Whitechapel Gallery until 29 August 2021

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Matthew Barney at Hayward Gallery

Published in Doris

Art Criticism


At around 2 hours and 15 minutes it’s virtually as long as a modern production of King Lear but without the breaks. At the beginning of the press view a cluster of other socially distanced critics in masks gathered in the Hayward’s dark space to watch Matthew Barney’s new film Redoubt but by the end I was, so to speak, the last person standing, the rest having slowly peeled away. During this marathon I went through a variety of emotions. Struck by the sheer beauty of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain range and the stunning photography I was, at first, captivated by the silence of the snow, the clusters of pristine pines like something from a Freudian dream or a German Romantic painting and the wildlife – wolves, pumas, eagles in their natural habitat – but, as time dragged on, I simply couldn’t decide whether this was a masterwork or a giant exercise in extended hubris. Why did it need to be so long?

The seed for Redoubt (a military term for a form of defensive fortification often improvised in natural areas to which an army can retreat) was first planted in the 1980s. As a teenager Barney grew up in Boise, Idaho and witnessed the debate between re-wilders and local farmers about the reintroduction of wolves into this remote area. The debate ran along political fault lines. Wolves had been hunted to extinction in the United States as early as 1926. In the 1980s and 1990s a federal wolf recovery team began their reintroduction to the anger of local farmers who feared for their livestock. More recently ‘American Redoubt’ has become the term favoured by American survivalists in the north western US, including Idaho, that has among the most relaxed gun laws in the country.

The film opens with drone shots of a snowy wilderness where eagles soar in an empty sky and the mountains are speckled with dark pines like a Peter Doig painting. It’s so beautiful, so ‘pure’ its takes the breath away. The stary night skies and soaring white peaks evoke the American sublime, painters such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church who explored the awe and terror experienced in the untamed American outback and the spiritual quiet found there where a modern soul could come face to face with themselves, as all true Romantics must.

But this is no David Attenborough eco-fest but a film that uses myth, dance and art interwoven with the ‘story’ of six hunts to say something about creativity versus nature, destruction versus regeneration and transformation. Whether you think it succeeds is in the end, I suppose, a matter of taste. Barney draws on cosmology, Greek myth (the three Graces) and American First Nation traditions. At the centre of the film is the (loose) story of the Greek goddess, Diana, deity of hunting and overseer of innocence and purity and Acteon, the hunter who invades her privacy and is punished for his pains. Charting the movements of six characters the film creates a web of overlaps and intersections. Diana, in Barney’s version, is a sexy sharp-shooter dressed in figure hugging camouflage attended by her acolytes the Calling Virgin (often seen making chthonic wolf cries) and the Tracking Virgin. We find them first sleeping in their camp site. The two ‘virgins’ hung high in a hammock amid the trees wearing just white vests and long johns curled in a variety of semi-erotic poses. Interwoven with their actions – preparing ammunition, making fires and tracking the wolves on horseback through the snow – is the role of the Engraver (played by Barney himself) who also appears to be a Ranger, driving around in a US service pickup truck to strap a night vision camera on the trunk of a tree. Later we see him in a remote trailer, the apparent home of the sixth character (and dancer) the Electroplater. Here the two, in a rudimentary laboratory of acid baths, wire pulleys and books on electroplating work together, wordlessly, on a series of copper plate etchings that seem to suggest transformation and alchemy. Copper, used in the making of bullets has been found throughout the Rocky Mountains and was once mined in central Idaho where the film is shot. The theme of cosmology is touched on when the Electroplater builds a model of the Lupus constellation identified by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD. Her role seems to be to act as a transforming conduit between the constellations and earth.

Over the course of the film we follow the Engraver as he sets up his stand in the snow to etch the copper plates that he takes back to the trailer. Meanwhile Diana and her Virgins continue their antics, at one point the pair bathe erotically in a stream, their white long johns and vests becoming fashion-shoot, nipple-revealingly transparent, while Diana sits on a rock watching. Elsewhere there are sequences of them doing Martha Graham style movements in the snow, falling down mimicking the kill of a hunt and the skinning of prey, rather hammering home the point that ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ often stand in opposition. Dance and movement are the emotionally expressive language, here, that hold this silent film together. The one time it shifts away from the wilderness is when the Engraver goes to a bar in the grim settler town and we see a Hoop Dance performed by Sandra Lamouche (Bigstone Cree Nation) inside the gloomy American Legion building. Flapping her red hoops like an eagle’s broken wings the dance, performed in this soulless civic space, seems to imply something of the sad diminishment of indigenous American culture. But it is the wolf that is the real hero of the work. Towards the end a pack goes on the rampage in the trailer, pulling everything apart. Nature reeking revenge perhaps?

Throughout the rest of the Hayward there are the ‘spin off’ artifacts from the film. Engravings on copper in charred pine frames, the artworks created by the voyeuristic Engraver who we saw engraving his plates on a tripod shooting bench out in the deep snow. Barney made five unique ‘states’ of electroplated copper plates, adjusting the electroplating variables of current, temperature and duration. Elsewhere a huge sculpture based on a charred pine dominates the space. The core of the tree was removed and spiralled channels carved into its surface. Encased in a mould, it was then burned away to create a hollow form in copper and brass. The resulting vast sculpture lies on the floor, its roots like coppery veins, part felled tree, part giant rifle, part in-yer-face phallus.

There’s no doubt that the ambition and reach of this show is immense and at times, it’s certainly beautiful, but the film seems overlong and rather full of its own self-importance, and does the world really need so many huge copper sculptures? The smell of commercialism, it seems, is never far away. As I left, I couldn’t help thinking of William Blake’s famous lines:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity for an hour

Published in Doris

Earth Dreams


But a mermaid has no tears

and, therefore, suffers so much more.

Hans Christian Andersen


All night I dreamt of land. Of soil

crumbling through my fingers to leave

black parings under broken nails,


of fields spread with dung and that melancholy

light of autumn, the colours of clay and fire,

where morning has a yellow tongue.


Could I exist in air?

In this oceanic deep you lie embedded

in the womb of my heart,


attached by an umbilicus of longing,

my aqueous nightgown transparent

as air.


I don’t even know who this you is.

Though I’ve pictured your all too human body

naked on my bed of cowrie shells,


visualised our house of cloth and tar,

ash walls mortared with the glue

of boiled fish bones.


Water accepts everything,

even the misshapen.

Over and over I’ve tried to imagine


a need for balance,

that slow steadying of the inner ear,

metatarsals pushing into solid ground.


Yet though I wait and wait

time returns me only to myself

as night to morning,


as sea to the shore,

so, where your voice

should be, there is only silence.



Mona Hatoum: The Light at the End 1989

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

What makes a Significant Work? Not necessarily what is fashionable or new but an artwork that holds its own down the years, that continues to resonate and still has something to say. It seems extraordinary that I first saw Mona Hatoum’s installation The Light at the End at The Showroom in East London in 1989. I was a young critic and fairly new to London and it quite literally stopped me in my tracks. This is what I wanted from art. 

Mona Hatoum knits together the ethical and aesthetic tensions of the exile – SH

Here was a work made from the most minimal of non-art materials turned into a gut-wrenching metaphor. In the darkened industrialised space where the brick walls had been painted ox-blood red, an angle-iron frame and six vertical electric heating elements glowed in the darkness to form a gate at the end of the narrowing space that blocked off the corner of the room like a cell. Drawn towards the intense orange lines, the work seemed to offer both promise and danger as light gave way to heat and I was greeted by the glowing red-hot grill. The sublime grids of Agnes Martin, the emotional installations of Eva Hesse and the mythic works of Joseph Beuys all seemed to coalesce here, while the human scale provoked uncomfortable thoughts of torture and incarceration.

Born in Beirut in 1952 to a Palestinian family living in Haifa, Mona Hatoum settled in London in 1975, after war broke out in the Lebanon. This was a Britain that was seeing swift cultural change and widespread industrial action. The ‘Winter of Discontent’ under a Labour government was about to give way to the election of Thatcher in 1979. It was during Hatoum’s time as a student at the Slade School of Art that she began to submerge herself in feminist and political debate, in the counter-cultural discourses surrounding gender, identity and race that were being hotly debated by influential thinkers such as Edward Said in key texts like Orientalism (1978).

Even if I hadn’t known that Mona Hatoum was a Palestinian living in exile, the sense of menace and entrapment were palpable. But the work’s power was not that it was descriptive, but that it was ahistorical and attached not to a singular moment but spoke of all inhumanity from the Spanish Inquisition, through to the disasters in Syria. Here was a metaphor for political violence that carried a title ironically suggesting hope. The work pre-dates the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib under George W. Bush’s administration but now seems prescient of what was to come: the aggravated assaults, the electric shocks, the harsh and inhumane treatment of detainees. Hunkered in the corner of the space, its rectangular presence could be read as a secular altarpiece erected to pain and injustice. Death and hope, as in much great Christian art, are close bedfellows and the work conjures Rilke’s famous lines “for beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure.”

For the viewer, the malevolent and the sublime, the abstract, the uncanny and the concrete all meld into an uncomfortable confusion. What are we supposed to feel? Fear, awe, excitement? And how can we get out of our heads the subliminal suggestion of internment camps or the cheap, unsafe accommodation endured by so many itinerant workers? Containing a play between the dark and the secret, the luminous and the redemptive associations of religious art, the work is closely rooted in contemporary culture. Mona Hatoum knits together the ethical and aesthetic tensions of the exile and the outsider to ask a series of open-ended questions.

Despite early experience of displacement, this is not an artwork with an autobiographical message but rather one concerned with issues and discussions of modernity. Both political and critical, it displays an awareness of the history of art, from the medieval altarpieces of great European churches to the sensory perception of arte povera and its use of adapted, often scavenged materials. Her theatrical iconography – elsewhere she uses cages, lightbulbs, iron bedsteads and even hair – challenges the viewer, wrong-footing them when they fall too easily into cliched interpretations. Her categories are constantly shifting. The body and psychology, the spiritual and the corporeal, are juxtaposed to create a poetic yet loosely political commentary on today’s crisis-ridden world. Made from the stuff of life, the stuff of the everyday – wire, wood, metal, light bulbs – Mona Hatoum creates a wholly contemporary, highly expressive grammar. Now, more than thirty years on, The Light at the End seems just as relevant, pertinent to the cultural debates around postcolonialism and postminimalism. In a world of flux and contradiction, with the rise of geopolitical tensions and the possible re-emergence of the cold war, this hard-hitting work forces us away from the chirpy irony and easy, ever-so-clever kitsch of the late 20th and early 21st-century art world’ into a realm of the turbulent, the authentic and the challenging. It is a reminder that art has a duty not to be just entertainment or an object for investment but to challenge, inform and make us think. Hard to bear, it reminds us of those who continue to be displaced, who suffer exile and deprivation. Offering little respite, it presents us, instead, with a poetry of sorrow and loss, forcing us to face the dark narratives of our turbulent and compromised epoch.

Published in Artlyst

Woman with Her Throat Cut – Alberto Giacometti, 1932

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

‘A fetish is a story masquerading as an object’
Robert Stoller

This morning I heard on the radio that the body of Sarah Everard, a young woman missing for a week, has been found in undergrowth and that a member of the Metropolitan police has been arrested. We may never know the disturbing back story to this murder but, yet again, a woman’s life has been cut short by a man. A man full of anger and hate. Yet again women will feel unsafe walking home from a night out with friends, just as they so often feel unsafe in the workplace among those who use their sexuality as a form of control or, too often, particularly during lockdown, in their own homes with an abusive partner. Despite the MeToo movement nothing has really changed. It’s 50 years since the campaign to Reclaim the Night, yet women remain in danger.

In 1932 Alberto Giacometti made an enigmatic and perplexing sculpture, Woman with Her Throat Cut. At the time he was living in Paris, a part of the Surrealist group. The shocking image reflects Surrealism’s fixation with the irrational, with sexual duality and archetypes. Juxtaposition and aggression were a part of the Surrealist language used to mine the new(ish) interest in the hinterlands of the psyche and the chthonic depths of the unconscious. As de Sade wrote: “there is no better way to know death than to link it with some licentious image”.

Led by André Breton and Max Ernst, the largely male group were well versed in the writings of Freud. Art allowed them to give voice to long submerged desires, to explore the connection between death and sexual excitement. At the beginning of the 20th century the ‘primitive’ held a fascination for intellectuals and artists expressed as an interest in African art and in the ‘dark’ urges uncovered by psychoanalysis. These instinctual drives were perceived to stand in contrast to the mundane behaviour displayed by the bourgeois world; to be the cross-roads between ‘civilization’ and the ‘savage’. Freud’s map of the psyche placed the ego (the Ich, the I) at a point between the civilizing super-ego and the primitive libidinous id. Surrealism provided a visual language with which to break through the niceties of daily existence to explore feelings that were more ‘authentic’ than those encountered in polite society.

“The domain of eroticism”, wrote Bataille, “is the domain of violence, of violation… the most violent thing of all for us is death which jerks us out of a tenacious obsession with the lastingness of the discontinuous being.” Death reminds us that we are alive. For Bataille, it was a state of dissolution that mirrored the transition from what was ‘normal’ to what was erotic. In these encounters the female was the essentially passive partner transformed into a deviant sexual object of male desire.. “The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in normal life,” wrote Bataille. Such detached thinking allowed men to act out their inner fantasies and explore repressed taboos.

Woman with Her Throat Cut is an emotionally highly charged work. The first of six bronze casts acquired by Peggy Guggenheim from the artist in 1940. Approximately three feet long and nine inches high it loosely depicts a woman lying on her back. Her throat appears to have been slashed and there are signs of rape, even of attempted murder. Yet she still seems to be alive, moving and sexually available. A spidery arm reaches out. Her legs are spread open. Her long neck arches backwards in what could either be agony or ecstasy. A reminder that the French phrase for orgasm is ‘le petit mort’. Full of ambiguity and contradiction the work is violent and cruel, yet playful and ironic. The jagged neck suggests not only the marks of a razor blade but the frets of a violin. This woman is a musical instrument on which the male can play his misogynistic tunes. It may be a coincidence, but in 1932 the aristocratic Donna Madina Gonzaga visited Giacometti in his studio prompting feelings of embarrassment and shame at his humble surroundings. Afterwards he became obsessed with her long, elegant neck.

Part animal trap, part vagina dentata, Woman with Her Throat Cut conjures a strange nightmarish mutation reminiscent of Gregor Samsa’s beetle in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Or a praying mantis – the female of the species consumes the male after sexual congress – favoured, Michael Berison suggests, by the Surrealists to illustrate the dangers of female sexuality. Stretched and elongated the figure appears to be in her death throes, breathing her last, dying alone.

Like Picasso, Giacometti came from a society that held very conservative views about women. Born in the mountain hamlet of Borgonovo in Eastern Switzerland in 1901, he enrolled in 1915 at the Evangelical School in the town of Schiers. It would be surprising, therefore, that this early upbringing, which presented women in stark contrast to those he’d meet later in the sophisticated artistic circles of Paris, didn’t have some effect on his conditioning and create numerous contradictions about his attitudes to women.

Yet beyond the imagery of gender politics, the jagged points evoke the barbed wire of the First World War trenches and are a painful reminder of a conflict that devastated the psyche of a generation, and of the young men slaughtered in their thousands on the battlefields of northern France. Perhaps it’s not too great a leap to consider that the hard metal surface depicts something of the feel and smell of heavy artillery, for the mechanisation of warfare made the 1914-18 conflict the most destructive the world had seen to date.

Along with other of Giacometti’s uncanny sculptures such as Suspended Ball (1930-31) a phallic form trapped in a metal cage; Woman with Her Throat Cut belongs to a period of distinctly Surreal work. Yet just as Giacometti was finding fame as a Surrealist he turned his back on that thread of Modernism to return to the tradition of the human figure. As a result he was excommunicated from the movement by André Breton. Knowing and clever, surrealistic sculpture was dependent on the juxtapositions and absurdities thrown up by dreams but Giacometti felt the need to abandon this theatricality to investigate the alienated feelings of the human subject experienced in the depression of the post-war years. Along with Beckett, Giacometti was to become one of the great exponents of existentialism, exploring notions of social isolation and anxiety, creating figures that Sartre described as “always mediating between nothingness and being.”

Asked by Genet why he approached male and females differently, Giacometti admitted that it was because he didn’t understand women, that they seemed more remote. As an adolescent he’d suffered badly from mumps, which had left him infertile as well as, partly, impotent. A state most easily cured by detached sex with prostitutes. Looking at Women with Her Throat Cut a century after it’s making – particularly in the light of the tragic murder of Sarah Everard – it still has the power to shock. Men of Giacometti’s generation were brought up to believe that women were either Madonna’s or whores. But the real outrage is the realisation that little has changed. ‘Give us a smile’, ‘you know you want to’, ‘don’t you have a sense of humour?’ men still quip as if by divine right, while women continue to be perceived as sexual objects. Objects of male fantasy, desire and hate that, even now, can be the catalysts to unspeakable murder.

Alberto Giacometti
Woman with Her Throat Cut
1932 (cast 1940)
23.2 x 89.1 x 60 cm
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1976

Published in Doris

Tony Bevan RA: Head 2004

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

Western philosophy has long struggled with the relationship between mind and body. If the mind is ‘internal’ what is its relationship to the ‘external’ body? Is the invisible mind ‘private’, while the visible body ‘public? If this split exists, where does the ‘real’ reside? For Descartes, the proof of his existence was that he was capable of thought, that he could observe himself thinking. While Leibniz believed that ‘each single substance expresses the whole universe after its own manner’. While philosophers tied themselves in knots trying to define our essential essence and whether or not to include God in the equation, the history of painting struggled to find its own ways visually to describe what it means to be human. From the first cave paintings to the seductive doe-eyed gaze of the Egyptians, via the Michael Angelo’s figurative description of God in the Sistine Chapel, to Rothko’s colour fields that give us a ‘feeling’ of the sublime, painters have struggled with these same complex questions. Who am I? What am I?

Tony Bevan’s heads meld an archaic charcoal line that might have been produced by a cave painter

Tony Bevan ‘HEAD’ 2004 71cm x 57cm.
Acrylic and Charcoal on Canvas (Private collection, Spain)

Among contemporary painters, none has investigated what it is that makes us individual and human more eloquently than Tony Bevan. Like Rembrandt, Soutine and Van Gough, he has turned to the self-portrait, not as an egotistical enterprise, but as a tool to explore humanity and self-hood. Portraiture has traditionally – particularly before the days of photography – been used to denote the social status of the sitter and, by implication, their relationship with the viewer and painter. Painted portraits were a way of telling the world who one was. How one wanted and expected to be seen by others. Where one fitted in on the ladder of social hierarchy. Later, photography was able to catch an ‘exact’ likeness and, as a result, ‘copying’ became less interesting to painters.

There is something atavistic about Tony Bevan’s heads that meld an archaic charcoal line that might have been produced by a cave painter, with the sophisticated semiotics of body, space and location. Drawing a stick of charcoal across the surface of a painting or drawing, he leaves a trail of debris like the cinders scattered from a campfire. This line roots us back to our ancient beginnings, whilst connecting us to the modern, aware painter making use of this most basic material. Working directly on canvas or paper pinned to the floor, the smeared detritus and incidental marks left by this process become embedded in the finished work. He then applies raw pigment and acrylic with a brush where the bristles have been cut down to an amputated stump. His signature colour is cadmium red. With its intense emotional charge, it suggests the ox blood of ancient ritual sacrifice and has all the frisson of the red used in Cy Twombly’s Roman paintings. His palette is restricted to red and orange, violet, blue and cream for colour, in Bevan’s work, is never employed simply to ‘illustrate’. It is always felt. Always carries an emotional charge. Grinding his own pigments, he is able to balance their different densities, while the charcoal he uses comes from willow, poplar and vine.

Sometimes, wrongly in my view, he is linked with Lucien Freud and other School of London painters, as well as Freud’s young acolyte, Jenny Saville. But they have little in common except an interest in the human body. For Freud, Auerbach and Saville the obsession is the difficulty of using paint to describe sentient flesh, whereas Bevan uses his line more like a cartographer to explore unknown lands and alien terrains that are spatial, architectural and psychological. That the metaphor of map-making is one commonly employed in psychoanalysis is highly apt, for Bevan’s line, like Theseus’ thread, is a vehicle for discovering the depths of human psyche.

In Head 2004, the scar-like black and red lines criss-cross the face as if inflicted by the ritual of tribal scarification or tattooing. Disembodied and lying precariously on a slope against an orange background, it conjures both Sisyphus’s’ stone bolder and the decapitated heads discovered in Joseph Conrad’s Congo. Taking photographs of himself in the studio from unconventional angles, Bevan uses these to emphasis his features from unnatural angles – flared nostrils seen from below, a thrusting chin – in order to map, not a likeness, but a psychological space. Perilously tilted, this rock-bolder-head looks as if it might roll away at any minute. The eyes are not visible so that like Tiresias, the prophet of Apollo in Thebes, made famous by T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland, it appears blind. Yet it is also heart-shaped like a pulsing organ recently cut from the chest. Both vulnerable and full of pathos, it is a shockingly arresting image.

The more I look at it, the more it reminds me of Giacometti’s floating heads with their framing lines containing a mass of whirly marks that bestow an overall solidity within that frame. Close to writing or some arcane language, these marks express both a nervy, edgy, existential anxiety and a chthonic sensuality, a feeling that is found in Bevan’s work. Like Giacometti, Bevan works on the edge of abstraction, whilst remaining a recognisably figurative painter, thus forcing us to identify with the human body, along with the fears, desires and emotions held within the nest of marks. Set against what might be an orange dystopian sunset, Head 2004 emerges from its series of whorls and swirls, disconnected from any other part of the body. It could be a mask from a Noh drama, or the head of John the Baptist held triumphantly aloft on a silver platter by Salome.

As well as heads, Bevan paints architectural structures, Roofs held up with industrial girders and ziggurats of studio furniture. Yet, as his heads resemble architectural structures, his architectural structures suggest the organic architecture of bodies and heads. Not only the girder-like skeletal forms but pathways of nerves and synapses, even the oriental meridian lines through which the life energy known as ‘qi’ flows.

For much of the late 20th-century art became obsessed with its own narrative of art-as-art and with the spatial qualities of flatness. Often these formal aspects became the dominant grammar of a painting. Whilst Bevan is acutely aware of these academic arguments – acknowledging the flatness of the surface, for example, by working on the floor – he has moved beyond painting’s recent solipsistic concerns to return to a sense of reverence for the human body, particularly that seat of the self, the site that defines who and what we are, the head.

Published in Artlyst

Richard Long: A Line Made By Walking 1967

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

The word ‘aesthetics’ is derived from the Greek word meaning perception or sensation. The Scottish philosopher David Hume spoke of the refinement of (educated) taste. He, like Kant, believed that some artworks were better than others. But, while Hume spoke of ‘taste’, Kant was more concerned with ‘beauty’ – a difficult, slippery category for us postmoderns. For Kant, this meant emotions, intellect and imagination being stimulated by a sensuous object. Clive Bell furthered this thinking when he emphasised that what mattered in an artwork was ‘Significant Form’ rather than context and, by the time we reach Clement Greenberg, the definition of what made a good painting was that the astute viewer was able to appreciate its flatness, to understand that the painting’s surface was simply an arena for paint to explore the grammar of paint.

By the 1960s definitions of what made art ‘art’, had been broken wide open

In 1967, Richard Long a young Bristol artist made a line in the grass of a field by walking backwards and forwards and called it A LINE MADE BY WALKING. Barely visible, it was an ephemeral track worn by his boots in the grass. How could such a transient thing, if ‘thing’ it even was, be considered art? And yet didn’t this simple act encompass everything that art needs? Spare beauty. Metaphor and history.

A Line Made by Walking 1967
Richard Long born 1945 Purchased 1976

The beauty bit is easy. Any sensitive eye can discern the change in colour of the crushed grass, against that which surrounds it, can feel a sense of satisfaction at the trueness of the line. But metaphor and history? Well, to understand that we need to look outside the narrow confines of European art history. Such a line as Long made in the grass that day is an archetypal human mark. A record and trace of a journey, even a short one. A mapping point between A and B. It designates departure, experience, change and return. Like Odysseus setting out for home from Troy after the Trojan war, we are all changed by the journeys we undertake, be they physical or emotional. Odysseus’ journey is a metaphor for the human capacity to endure the unknown. To live by trust and inner strength. It stands for the universal journey that we all take, great or small, from birth to death. The symbolism is no less powerful in Richard Long’s line because the journey is a short, traced across a field. A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step.
The power of the journey, or at the least of the walk and the traces that it leaves, has been understood for years by the Aboriginal people who, though their Dreamtimes developed complex animist narratives that incorporated rocks, creeks and mounds into their internal creation myths. Not only do the timelines that they create on their walks through the outback ceremonially map the landscape through which they travel, but the very process is a mystical, transformative experience. The one who sets out is not the same as the one who arrives. As Eliot reminds us in his poem Little Gidding “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time”.

This path is known for the Zen Buddhist as the mushin or the Heavenly Way. While Christian’s journey in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and the sacred ways of Santiago de Compostela or the English Bede’s Way – which follows the route of Europe’s most venerated early medieval scholar, the Venerable Bede – all assume that the pilgrim/traveller will be changed by the experience. In Richard Long’s case, he created a virgin track. One undesignated and untrodden previously by others. His is a record of his particular walking body, moving through time like a sundial or a pendulum, backwards and forwards across an ordinary English field. Yet, as with a photograph, what is left with is the trace, the memory of the experience. It’s not the experience itself. We do not see him tramping his way across the field. The line etched in the grass embodies the history of his movement like the ancient tracks of a thousand herders and their animals found in the Pyrenees and Himalayas that mark the migration of men and flocks over hundreds of generations.

For an artist, the creation of an artwork is a journey. They set out often, not knowing exactly what route they will take. Surprised by the twists and turns along the way, both dispassionate observer yet embedded inside the very process.

Sir Richard Long Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017

Richard Long has said that places give him the energy for ideas. Like the great walker poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wordsworth and John Clare he understands that the body moving through nature has a different awareness gleans different truths to one that is static. For the poet, the poem is made up of meter, rhythm and feet that emulate human movement. For Long, his works reflect the dimensions of the body. The span of his stride, how many steps it takes to cover a particular distance.

Classical landscape painting used the natural world as a stage, a commodity, but for Long the natural world is something of which he is an integral part, something with which he interacts through touch, walking and looking. Subject and object, viewer and landscape meld to become homogeneous. He may move a few stones, arrange a few sticks, but nothing didactic here, nothing arch and ironic, simply an invitation for us to slow down, look and respond from the deepest recesses of ourselves. What he creates are stopping points, similar to wayside shrines along those ancient pilgrim paths that give space for moments of reflection and contemplation. This sense of mindful awareness, of placing one foot in front of the other, of the inhaling and exhaling of breath, is comparable to the conscious meditations of the yogic traditions.

From making A LINE MADE BY WALKING Richard Long has continued to make work embedded in the natural world. He has built stone circles, painted with Avon mud and created texts based on the distance covered by his walks. He takes nothing more sophisticated with him than a length of string with which to make circles, a camera for records, paper and a pencil. He has made work in Dorset and Ireland, on Dartmoor and as far afield as the Sahara and Texas. Yet the process is essentially the same. To walk, to look, to experience and record with minimal intervention and disruption. To quote from a Japanese Noh play, “uncertain the journey’s end, our destination; uncertain too, the place from whence we came.” In the time of a pandemic, we would do well to look again at Richard Long’s apparently simple A LINE MADE BY WALKING. We may learn a lot from this elemental, chthonic work.

Published in Artlyst

Jenny Saville: Propped 1992

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

She sits balanced on a high stool naked in front of a mirror, her white sling-backs hooked around its slender neck to balance her heavy body. Her bulbous breasts hang to her waist. Her head is thrown back, eyes closed, hands clawing at the flesh of her ham-like thighs. Scribbled into the paint, in mirror-writing like graffiti reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s scrawls, are gobbets of text by the Belgium feminist writer, Luce Irigary that say: If we continue to speak in this sameness – speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other.

I first discovered this painting in a group show – I can’t remember where

Not long after Jenny Saville had left art school in Glasgow. As yet she was unwritten about and unknown. I was taken aback by its power and wrote a short review for Time Out. The work was determined, muscular and quite literally ‘in yer face’. It was obvious, with its Freudian undertones (both Sigmund and Lucien) that this young artist was destined to go far. So it’s interesting to revisit the work that brought Saville to the attention of the artworld, nearly 20 years later.

Jenny Saville Propped 1992
Photo Courtesy Sothebys

For a young woman, at the time, to insert herself into the male canon of Titian and Rubens was highly audacious. Few women had painted the female nude with such candour, though the likes of Suzanne Valadon and Paula Modersohn-Becker had dared to explore the female form with an honesty few male artists could muster. But most women painters simply painted their female subjects clothed, in drawing rooms and gardens. Throughout art history women artists struggled for the same recognition as their male counterparts, but until the late 19th-century entry into art schools was denied and nude models unavailable to most of them.

During the last two decades of the 20th-century female art, students were avidly reading not only Lucie Irigary but other French feminists such as Julia Kristeva and Hélèn Cixous. Debates around socially constructed attitudes as to what it meant to be a woman – sexually, economically and intellectually – took centre stage. Feminist artists such as the Guerrilla Girls or Barbra Kruger tended to go down the conceptual route rather than expressing themselves in paint. What defined female beauty was also being deconstructed. Everyone had read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and his analysis of the male’s gaze. Everything that, supposedly, defined what it meant to be a woman was being rethought through a feminist and mostly Marxist lens: our bodies, our sexuality, race and class.

In 1982 Susie Orbach wrote her seminal text Fat is a Feminist Issue

Following a path beaten through the jungles of patriarchy by predecessors such as Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer. Orbach examined how the psychology of eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa had little to do with greed, but rather more to do with women finding themselves caught up in a compulsive need to please, to create models of perfection. This was the time when we were led to believe that women could be femmes fatales in the bedroom, Hovis-toasting Mums in the kitchen and high-flying career women in the boardroom. Food became a means of nurture for when we fell short of this perfection, a way of filling the void that many felt but did not have the language to express. Too much food was how we both punished ourselves and healed what was wounded—feeling stressed? Can’t cope? Have another chocolate biscuit. Rather than speak of our pain, there was always another slice of hot buttered toast to be had, even if what we really wanted was self-esteem and love.

Saville spent several of her youthful summers in Venice. Her uncle showed her Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, the altarpiece in the Friary. She was struck by its scale and dynamism which, she has since said, may well have had something to do with her own feelings about her size. She was excited by the possibility of ‘largeness’, the space it gave for her paint marks to travel both in a figurative and an abstract way. In Propped, the paint becomes flesh; at once beautiful, vulnerable, excessive and verging on the abject. It delivers a punch that is at one and the same time, psychological and physical. As a self-portrait, the work is revealing and brave, but it also has a raw vulnerability. Saville’s fingers scratch at the ample flesh of her thighs as if to draw blood, do harm and in, someway, punish herself. There’s self-hatred here, as well as self-confidence – all expressed through that most classical medium – paint.

Saville has said that painting and drawing are mediums in which she feels comfortable. That she likes the journey of making something that is ‘only itself’. Because it is not an algorithm, the same mark can never be made twice. Each one has to be felt in the mind and the body. There is always a tussle between form and space. Like Bacon, paint is used explore human emotion without resorting to standard academic techniques.

It’s interesting to note what has changed in the 20 years since Propped was painted. Certainly, the category of ‘woman’ has become more fluid and complex than it ever was when this was executed. However, Saville’s interrogation of what constitutes beauty still remains insightful, particularly in its mirroring of an ubiquitous cultural aversion to corpulence. One of her greatest achievements was to reclaim the female body from the male gaze, to paint the experience of being a woman from inside out, whilst using all the tools that she’d learnt from the masters, from Rubens to Rembrandt, from de Kooning to Freud, for her own ends.

Words: Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2020
Photos Jenny Saville Propped 1992 Courtesy Sothebys

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Mary Wollstonecraft: A Lumpen Statue By Maggie Hambling

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Art Criticism

It’s been quite a year for statues. Normally no more than street furniture that no one bothers to look at – old white men standing on plinths in all weathers extolling some arcane ‘victory’ of the Empire – statues have, recently, taken centre stage. First Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into the Bristol docks. Now Maggie Hambling’s homage to Mary Wollstonecraft is creating a furore on north London’s Newington Green.

A lumpen statue that is neither thought-provoking nor well-executed

Yesterday her breasts and pudenda were covered with gaffer tape by outraged feminists. Over 90% of London’s memorials celebrate men, so this addition is significant. The Wollstonecraft Society’s stated aims were: ‘to promote the recognition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s contribution to equality, diversity and human rights and promote equality and diversity in education and stimulate aspiration and thoughtful reflection’.

Public sculpture is always a problem. It has to do many things for many people and is generally art commissioned and approved of by committee, rather than the free expression of a single artist’s imagination. In this case, Jude Kelly, the one-time director of the South Bank, and Shami Chakrabati are patrons, among many other well-known supporters from the arts. Unfortunately, there seem to be several briefs going on at once and none of them is really being fulfilled. On a recent Newsnight, Emma Barnett – no art critic – seemed to get a schoolgirl thrill from repeatedly talking about ‘tits’ on prime time TV while, at no point, discussing the work within a serious context of other contemporary artworks or even art history.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born into a family of straitened means. Her violent father made her acutely aware of the vulnerability of women. She would receive only a scanty education when formal education for women was not considered a right, yet would go on to write extensively about education for girls, establishing a boarding school on Newington Green.

Her writing career consisted of translations, reviews and books for children, whilst her travel writing influenced a number of early Romantic writers. But it was A Vindication of the Rights of Women(1792) that was her most crucial work; the first significant feminist tract. During her life, she had two important relationships. The first with the American adventurer and spy Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had a daughter during the French Revolution, and the anarchist and thinker, William Godwin, who fathered her second child who would become Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and the wife of the poet. Mary Wollstonecraft counted among her friends the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine who came to Newington Green when in London to attend the Unitarian Church. She was, without doubt, a heavyweight in the feminist pantheon.

Mary Wollstonecraft – Maggie Hambling

If nothing else, Maggie Hambling has succeeded in raising the visibility of Wollstonecraft among those who perhaps did not previously know of her existence. Speaking on Woman’s Hour today, she gave an articulate explanation of her work. But art is not a question of persuasive argument or language but of visual, emotional and intellectual impact. It has failed if it has to be justified in words. Language can only expand an artwork. In this case, the work needed to contain a sense of homage to its subject AND be a fresh and innovative artwork. It doesn’t really do either.

Today I went to Newington Green to see it for myself. It was a beautiful autumn day and I really wanted to like it ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, but it was worse than I expected. The problem is, not as many feminists seem to be objecting, that it incorporates nudity but that it is conceptually lazy, piling on cliché on well-worked cliché. A lumpen piece that is neither thought-provoking nor well-executed. If nudity is used, it needs to be the expressive language that carries the narrative weight of its subject. Think of the emotional charge of an edgy Klimt nude that no amount of linguistic explanation can replicate. It’s not the nudity that’s disrespectful to Wollstonecraft but that she’s been commemorated by the second rate.

From a distance, the oddly glitzy silver surface looks like one of those mascots that used to decorate the bonnets of posh cars or a chunk of amalgam recently extracted from a painful tooth. The sense of scale is off balance. The amorphous flow of ‘feminine energy’ leading to the tiny Barbie-doll figure standing on top like a sort of female Jack-in-a-box, crude. The simplified/idealised form with its gym abs and pert breasts carries no expressive resonance or historic charge. It’s not Everywoman, more Everyman’s wet dream. There is no sense of metaphor. No sense of history. Coming across it by chance it would offer up little of its point and purpose.

In his seminal text, Ways of Seeing, the late John Berger deconstructed the way that women were traditionally seen in art, suggesting that they were largely there to satisfy the male gaze. Revolutionary at the time, this insight meant that we could never go back to looking at a nude again without asking who it is for and what it is trying to say? That Maggie Hambling – who is really not a sculptor but a painter – should produce something so old fashioned and so ill-considered is a missed opportunity to put an iconic woman on the map. She might have chosen to make an abstract piece or a book on the lines of one of Anslem Kiefer’s great lead books or a realistic sculpture such as Gillian Wearing’s powerful commemoration of the Suffragette, Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square. Many have argued that the piece is being criticised simply because it’s new’ and that that is the fate of all ‘modern’ art. But that’s really not the case. It fails because it’s ill-executed because it doesn’t catch the spirit of Wollstonecraft and doesn’t employ the grammar and language of sculpture with originality, imagination or panache with the result that it looks rather more like something that’s just escaped from an up-market garden centre than a longed-for commemoration of a great historic heroine – and that’s a real pity.

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Jock McFadyen RA: Popular Enclosure 2005

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

Jock McFadyen is the psycho-geographer of the visual art world. ‘The laureate’, as Ian Sinclair has suggested, ‘of stagnant canals, filling stations and night football pitches’. His natural milieu is the East End where he’s lived for many years.

He inhabits its interstices between traditional past and discombobulated post-modern present

The derelict 1970s post-war city is the backdrop to many of his paintings of place, its liminal spaces before the rash of high-rise glass and steel developments, the influx of young bankers to Canary Wharf and Limehouse. His is a city of abandoned warehouses and neglected canals, home to drowned supermarket trolleys, and alkies with a can of Tennents wrapped in a brown paper bag. Artists, searching for cheap spaces to live and work, moved there in the early 1980s to set up shop in short-life, run-down terraces such as Beck Road. The East End, then, was as different to its glitzy sibling the West End, as East Berlin was to its twin West Berlin. Thatcher, squatting, Punk, graffiti, street markets and poverty were the mood music of this bleak post-industrial landscape.

Born in Paisley, Scotland in 1950, near Glasgow, McFadyen’s grandfather was a boat builder, his father a draughtsman in the Clyde shipyards. A natural rebel, McFadyen made an effigy of his school Head which he set on fire when, after a stint in the hospital due to a motorcycle accident, he returned to find that the school art course had shifted from painting towards design. Soon after, he packed his bags and left with his then partner, Carol, for London to try his luck and got himself into art school. Chelsea, no less. The art school of the day when the King’s Road was the place to be with its boutiques and antique shops frequented by the likes of Marianne Faithful and Mick Jagger.

McFadyen was ambitious, argumentative and bright. He lived in squats. Had a son. Worked as a van driver, before becoming artist-in-residence at the National Gallery. It was when he split with Carol and hit rock bottom that he had an epiphanal moment. Shrugging off the weight of centuries of old master painting, he decided to paint what he saw around him. As he says: ‘I dumped all the clever bollocks and decided to work from observation’. Unlike other British figurative painters of his generation – Peter Howson and John Kirby, for example, who painted though a lens of sentimental nostalgia – McFadyen depicted skin-heads, prostitutes and Hawksmoor churches with the grit of an Otto Dix.

In 1990, when I first met him, he’d just been commissioned to paint scenes of Berlin after the fall of the wall for an exhibition at The Imperial War Museum. He was on his way. It was while working on the set for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet, The Judas Tree at Covent Garden in 1991 that he realised he’d been painting landscapes all along. He began to take a sketchbook and copy graffiti off walls, to draw local authority tower blocks and Hawksmoor churches, and take photographs (though he had to be selective before digital a reel of film only had 36 shots) to record the streets around him. He painted Roman Road at night, spotted with street lights dissolving into the dark ground. The drab grey mouth of the Thames with its wide horizons and container ships. The no man’s land of the A13 that runs from the City towards Southend-on-Sea. His unique originality made it hard for him to fit into any current ‘ism’. Favouring the company of writers and filmmakers, he has always dipped into a wide cultural pool.

One of his most iconic paintings of this period is the doomed Walthamstow dog track. An Art Deco building that exemplifies one of the East Ends abiding traditions, betting. The ground, originally built and used by the Walthamstow Grange Football Club became known, by 1929, as the Crooked Billet Greyhound and whippet track. Winston Churchill addressed 20,000 people there in the 1940s while canvassing for re-election. The stadium has had a checkered history as a motorcycle speedway, a car racing track and the home to Charley Chan’s nightclub that was built under the clock tower. In Jock McFadyen’s Popular Enclosure, 2005 the building is shown at the end of its life, standing against a streaked sky like a once beautiful film star who cannot quite believe she’s no longer in vogue. Its grimy desolation rings with the lost voices of those who came to spend the day ‘at the dogs: the second-hand car dealers moved out to Essex, in for a flutter, the trainers in flat caps urging on their whippets to come in first. It’s as though their ghosts have been absorbed into the defeated fabric of this once bustling building that stands as a metaphor for the fluctuating fortunes of a dying community.

Yet for all the work’s potent social and emotive resonance, McFadyen is first and foremost a committed painter, concerned with the language of paint. He likes to work wet on wet. A technique that gives the oil paint something of the transparency and mobility of watercolour and there’s an ongoing debate between figuration and abstraction taking place in the horizontal white striations of cloud and the formal grid of empty entrance gates. As with his A 13 road paintings or Pink Flats 2000, there’s a raw desolation that suggests the lost narratives of those who once came to this place for entertainment, easy gain and companionship. The large expanse of cold blue sky, contrasted to the architecture of the seedy building, conjures a place both of dreams and despondency: a dilapidated cathedral to a wasted urban sublime.

Forthcoming exhibitions (Dates could vary due to COVID)

14th November 2020 – 11th April 2021 Jock McFadyen Goes to the Pictures, City Art Centre, Edinburgh
6th February – 11th April 2021 Jock McFadyen: Tourist without a Guidebook, Royal Academy, London
11th June – 25th September 2021Jock McFadyen: Lost Boat Party, Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh
Dates TBA 2021 Jock McFadyen Goes to The Lowry: A Retrospective, The Lowry, Salford

Read More About Jock McFadyen RA

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Zanele Muholi Explores A Black Queer And Trans South Africa

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

“I am re-writing a Black Queer and Trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our existence, resistance and persistence” – Zanele Muholi

Before you get too excited, this exhibition was set to open at Tate Modern 5th November but due to COVID19 restrictions will be postponed until a future date has been decided.

As a white, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual woman I am, perhaps, setting myself up to write about the South African artist Zanele Muholi. Yet, when I first encountered their (preferred pronoun) work, I was, without knowing anything of their sexual orientation or political activism, simply bowled over by their powerful, strong and beautiful images. That is how it should be.

Zanele Muholi

Good art speaks beyond its target audience and touches something universal. Muholi’s black and white portraits of women emphasise the richness of their ebony skin highlighted by chalky lips, white lace mantillas and hair-combs, presenting them like great Kaberion goddesses (a site located several miles outside the Greek city of Thebes), where the African features of Hera, Minerva and Aphrodite regularly appeared on ancient Greek skyphos, a large ceramic cup used by ancient Greeks for the consumption of copious quantities of wine. For the Greeks, these faces were considered ‘exotic’. But, unlike the patronising otherness associated with this term within contemporary culture, they saw the exotic in nature as having great power, especially to ward off evil. The depiction of Olympian goddesses as African was a ‘positive’ form of the ‘radicalised other’. A view borne out by the pioneering scholar, Frank Snowden, [1] who claims that racial prejudice didn’t exist in ancient times but evolved only with the advent of slavery in the early modern period. Muholi’s formidable, self-decorated subjects stare out confronting the viewer with their white eyes set in jet black skin. Serpent’ ruffs’, bejewelled hairpieces and large beaded or raffia necklaces are worn like regal accessories. These individuals fill the picture space with all the presence of a Cleopatra or Queen of Sheba, undermining both the dominant male view and the colonial white gaze.

Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi uses their photographs to create a Black History of Now. Often much of this everyday reality has gone unseen by the rest of the world. The emphasis on Black LGBTQIA+ culture, not as some fictional past but as lives lived and visible in the here and now, is a challenge to any latent complacency. South Africans (no doubt aided by the history of apartheid) have traditionally seen ‘black queer bodies as threatening, un-sacred and tragic’. Muholi documents these people and their stories to reconfigure ideas of history/normality/acceptability. In so doing, they not only challenge how the mainstream views’ alternative’ sexualities, but how this mirrors how we read and interpret the past, what is made visible and by whom, and what is given agency to be brought centre stage.

Not only a highly gifted photographer but a long time queer activist, Muholi asks in their images how far we are prepared/ able to go to detach Black (and queer) representations from the historic voyeuristic repository of the western gaze. They seem to be creating a new grammar outside the binaries of black/white, heterosexual/homosexual that more accurately depict the experience of individual lives. An emphasis on exteriority gives voice to hidden interiorities.

Not all the subjects are regal. Muholi depicts young women binding their breasts with bandages and having sex, naked bodies lying lovingly entwined on tousled beds and Black queer individuals – both trans men and trans women – taking pride in beauty pageants and photo shoots. A particular influence on Muholi’s work was that of Joan E. Biren, a photographer associated with the second-wave of feminism and gay liberation in the 1970s. Biren’s credo was ‘collaboration, not domination,’ an approach that defines Muholi’s own photographic position. There’s an insistence on ‘participant’ rather than viewing the other as a ‘subject’, of giving voice and agency to the lesbians, gender non-conformists and trans men who appear in these photographs. In this work, Muholi continues the slow repositioning of black women within the art arena championed by artists such as Maud Sulter and Lubaina Himid.

Christian missionaries implanted the belief that homosexuality was un-African. Research has shown that binary notions of gender and sexual relationships were, to some degree, enforced by colonial powers. For Muholi’s participants, seeing themselves portrayed has often been both healing and transformative, bringing lives that may have been lived unwillingly in the shadows into the light. Muholi’s unflinching eye challenges the dominant views that surround not only transphobia and racism but the lives of all those disenfranchised and pushed to the margins. In so doing this remarkable body of nuanced, strong and compassionate work re-writes the visual history of South Africa, as well as challenging how we look at art.

Zanele Muholi
5 November 2020 – 7 March 2021
Tate Modern, London

Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks Harvard University Press.

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Three Poems – Extinction Rebellion



Not Yoshino in April
when blossom-fringed branches
bow towards the ground in prayer
beneath an early moon
illuminating the frailty of
white clouds
where friends gather
to sip sake and petals flutter
to the ground pale as moths
but deep January in Islington’s
Highbury Fields where these
tender buds this early spring
will be the death of us

Planet Songs

I am full of galaxies,
a black hole where each nerve,

each synapse connects me
to a fishnet of stars.

Darkness dissolves
this glass-spun constellation,

this matrix of beginnings and ends.
In time everything collapses,

planets, houses, love, crumbling
like the dust of old bones.

Three in the morning
and a patina of moonlight

slips beneath the curtain’s murky edge,
filling the curved emptiness with

a sheen of cosmic dust, a helix
of light in the deep dark mauve.

Granddaughters’ song

against extinction

She begins, and the little one joins in.
Six and eight they hold hands,
fingers shyly twisting the edge of their skirts,
sweet voices just hitting the high notes

as if reaching for a future.
And how I want that to be lovely.
A place where the gnarled lilac
still blooms in the old garden

they never knew,
a crush of wild garlic
in evening the air. Summer rain
dripping from tall beeches.

I’d have them sing up a world
they can live in,
with air they can breathe,
where badgers build sets

in the deep dark wood
and sea horses team in green oceans..
Sing, sing my little ones,
and may your tender voices

reach towards the indifferent stars
that they look down
on you from their icy spheres
and take pity.


Tell us a bit about your latest novel, ‘Rainsongs’ published by Duckworth, and in particular the part nature plays in the story.

For a number of years I was visiting Kerry on the west coast of Ireland. I wrote a series of poems there – published, originally, by Occasional Press, with drawings by the Irish artist Donald Teskey. During my many stays I got to know the rhythms of the place. It’s still very wild and unspoilt – on the very edge of Europe – there’s nothing but sea until you get to America. It feels very old. Still connected to its pre-Christian and early Christian past. Where I was staying was opposite Skellig St. Michael, a 6th monastery to an order of reclusive monks built on a rock which sits 10 miles out in the Atlantic. The weather is extreme, with rain clouds and storms constantly coming in from the west. At night it is so dark you can see every star. I completely fell in love with the place. Living in a remote, very basic cottage, I felt like Thoreau. Although I live in London now, I had lived for many years in Somerset, and this reconnected me to a much simpler way of living. The novel is centred on Martha, a widow who returns to her deceased Irish husband’s holiday cottage in order to sort out his affairs. At a time of grief, this savage landscape becomes a source of solace and healing as she navigates the ghosts of her past, and the time spent within this small community. In many ways the landscape is the central character of the book.

Many people will be familiar with ‘Eurydice’, your poem in the London’s Southbank Underpass. What do you see as the role of public art, and could it have a role in tackling the climate emergency?

‘Eurydice’ has had a chequered past. Originally commissioned by the Arts Council and BFI during the building of the IMAX, the idea was to make an inhospitable underpass more welcoming. The poem is centred on the story of Eurydice descending into the Underworld but then coming up into the fragile light. This is an image of hope. The poem has twice been destroyed by Network Rail and, subsequently, reinstated due to public demand.

Now it is to be officially moved to a new home – as the original tunnel is to be closed. I think the long-running survival of this fragile poem in a hostile urban environment is a metaphor for the conservation of what is small and vulnerable. Like nature, public art can give the spectator a quiet space for contemplation. Of course, it can’t ‘tackle’ climate change but it can have an effect upon how we respond to our environment.

What do you think is the role of writers in the Anthropocene?

I don’t think writers or artists can change anything. As George Steiner wrote after the Holocaust: ‘Central to everything I am and believe and have written is my astonishment, naïve as it seems to people, that you can use human speech both to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate.’

The point is, that through creativity, we can strive to be the best of ourselves. To keep alive the best of the human spirit in order to illuminate our shadow side. The very act of creation continues to confirm our humanity, even if it cannot directly alter events.

Is there a specific thought or idea that motivates you into taking action over the climate and ecological emergency? (or, if you like, what frightens you the most about the crisis?)

I write a good deal about memory. I have children and grandchildren. I want them to grow old, to live in a world where memories and connections to our culture and landscape are still possible and they can be in touch with the healing potential of the natural world.

What is the most powerful piece of writing that you have read about the climate and ecological emergency?

It still has to be Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring. The first book I ever came across on this subject. It dealt with the corrosive power of pesticides: “..a strange blight came over the area… mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death.” This was written in 1958.

Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? Does literature have a part to play in creating this future?

Literature – poems, stories and essays – can allow us to connect with the lost parts of ourselves, to slow down. It can help us to understand the emergency that’s overwhelming us, reminding us that we need to stop, listen, learn and see. Early lockdown gave us a chance to hear birdsong usually drowned by traffic noise, to breathe clean air and look up at blue sky unpolluted by planes. It gave us time to think, read and to re-evaluate. As long as there is poetry, there is hope for the human spirit because it reminds us that there are different values and ways of being in the world to those of the dominant culture.

Rachel Howard:
Suicide Drawings

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

Rachel Howard’s Suicide Paintings/drawings were first shown at the Bohen Foundation in NY, in 2007 and the following year at London’s Haunch of Venison gallery. Left shocked and devastated by the suicide of an acquaintance who was found kneeling in an almost prayer-like position, suicide was, she realised, one of the last taboos.

Why do I write all about suicide and mad people? – Virginia Woolf

Research has shown that there are a number of gender differences. While males are more likely to succeed in taking their own lives and to use more violent methods, women are three times more likely to attempt suicide than men.

Female ‘hysteria’ has a long history. Centuries before Freud – who considered its driving force to be repressed sexual aggression – ‘inappropriate’ sexual desire, frigidity, fainting and shortness of breath were all considered symptoms. From the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks who believed the female uterus was a living creature that wandered – no doubt, hobbit-like – throughout the female body ‘blocking passages, obstructing breathing and causing disease’, via Hippocrates who thought a woman’s ‘semen’ turned venomous if not released through regular marital climax, women’s sexual, emotional and psychological health has been defined by men.

Rachel Howard – Suicide Drawings

In the last century, suffragettes who didn’t accept the patriarchal status quo were imprisoned and forcibly fed till their mental and physical resistance was broken down. While, well into the 20th century, a man – however obnoxious, violent and drunken – had a legal right to lock away his perfectly sane wife or daughter in a mental asylum. It was not until the 1970s that the writings of post-structural feminists such as Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva that female desire and consciousness was linked to language, tied to and coloured by how we communicate as a society. In the 1950s and 60s clinicians were still taught that women suffered from penis envy, were morally inferior to men, dependent and passive. Young physicians were instructed that women had a tendency to be child-like, manipulative, smothering, and driven by their hormones, rather than, as so often, being the subjects of domestic abuse or post-partum depression.

Breaking the social mores about depression and self-destruction became a theme of 20th-century women’s writing. Some thirty years before her death by self-drowning, Virginia Woolf was asking in her marginalia, ‘Why do I write all about suicide and mad people?’ While, in her only novel The Bell Jar, written in 1963, Sylvia Plath confessed ‘It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get’. Dorothy Parker wrote graphically in one of her autobiographical short stories: ‘She pounced upon all the accounts of suicides in the newspapers. There was an epidemic of self-killings — or maybe it was just that she searched for the stories of them so eagerly that she found many’.

When the poet Anne Sexton ended her life, her fellow poet Adrienne Rich called her suicide a feminist issue, suggesting that ‘poetry is a guide to the ruins, from which we learn what women have lived and what we must refuse to live any longer. Her death is an arrest: In its moment we have all been held, momentarily, in the grip of a policeman who tells us we are guilty of being female, and powerless.’ Powerless is what women have mostly felt throughout history.

Of course, it hasn’t only been writers who have killed themselves. Invisible, everyday woman with unwanted pregnancies and abusive partners, those who face homelessness have been pushed to the brink to take their own lives. Even the brilliant, the rich and the beautiful have often not been helped by a patriarchal psychiatric institution. Marylin Monroe, Margaux Hemingway and Jean Seaberg – ‘successful’ women – did not feel good enough behind their gilded masks to live up to the expectations of ‘perfection’ in a male-dominated society. According to the writer and physician, Phillis Chester, in her book Women and Madness, 1972, these judgements amounted to ‘a form of psychiatric imperialism’. No diagnostic categories existed for male sex predators or paedophiles. As Donald Trump still likes to exemplify: ‘boys will be boys’ so that grabbing a woman by the ‘pussy’ is normalised as laddish rather than gross pathological behaviour.

As the late 20th century continued, feminists such as Suzy Orbach and Kim Chernin saw much of women’s distress through a prism of eating disorders. In contrast, 21st-century social media has exacerbated the demands on young girls to be thin, seductive and sexy, even before they reach puberty. Facebook is more likely to encourage them to change their bodies than to change the world. Bullied, often to the point of despair, many teenage girls have been shamed into ending their lives.

Whilst the subject of women and ‘madness’ has been dealt with extensively in literature, it has been less visited in the visual arts. In the early 2000s, Rachel Howard made a hard-hitting series of Indian ink drawings. Trawling through the internet, forensic magazines and sites dealing with suicide, she found that women used a variety of methods: rope, scissors, a ladder. In one of her drawings, an anonymous victim lies draped across a bed in a lonely room after an implied overdose, recalling the erotic violence of Walter Sickert. In another of her most potent images, a faceless, silhouetted figure hangs lifeless as a doll, from a noose. In her anonymity, she has become a universal signifier of the inner despair felt by so many women who never actually go on to commit suicide. Slumped against a bleak background, she’s drained of individuality. On the verge of slipping from the picture frame and reminding us that we, too, will soon put her out of sight and out of mind as one of society’s discards. Any minute she will disappear, to become no more than a footnote, a smudged trace like the irradiated victims of Hiroshima. Howard’s stark black ink lines bleed into the paper losing their figurative distinction like an act of self-erasure.

Culture has always maintained the illusion of the sacred female over the profane and ‘the purity of the categories that define sexuality as ‘normal’ as opposed to ‘deviant’. Yet Rachel Howard does not shy away from the eroticism of violence, its beauty, fetishism and erotomania. In her raw, quickly executed calligraphic marks, she poses questions about what it means to be human. To think, feel, desire, and what it takes for the psyche to breakdown and reach a point where, as T.S Eliot says: ‘Humankind cannot bear too much reality’.

In Suicide and the Soul, James Hillman writes that: ‘we are…ultimately what we become, what we are in death. In one sense, death is more real than birth in that all beginnings are behind us.’ Besides being an object, the body is also the site and container of our experience and internal sense of reality. It is this that Rachel Howard’s fiercely simple drawings subtly reveal. The body as memory, the body as our individual story and the complexity behind the despairing act of suicide that, even nearly twenty years after her first investigations, remains largely a heart-breaking taboo.

Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020

Published in Artlyst

His Name is Abu Omar

Ekphrastic Poetry

Among the pulverised fragments
his father’s chair falls to its knees in prayer,
while the door ululates on a single hinge

and the iron stove cowers in the corner.
Torn curtains flutter in terror,
but only the mirror seems crazed.

Ghost-white, he sits amid
the ash and dust, the collapsed cornices
remembering his old life:

sugar lumps stirred
into a glass of black tea.
Chess with his neighbour,

children’s voices echoing
in the garden where pomegranates
grew outside the high window.

Now, among these ruins, he sits
on his bed, a Turkish pipe
turning his white beard yellow.

It’s the golden oldies from the 50s
he likes the best. Arab songs sung by
Mohamed Dia Eddine, romantic,

and melancholy with his thick black hair.
Slipping the vinyl from its Parlaphone sleeve,
he blows off the dust,

cranks up the windup handle,
closes his eyes as if in prayer,
to picture beneath

this broken wing of sky,
the living dancing the Dabke
through the wounded streets of Aleppo.

The Ice Ship

Ekphrastic Poetry

Caspar David Friedrich
The Polar Sea

Snow-clad mountains spit fire, icebergs drift
… a boiling swell, piercing the pale sun in its net of frosty air.
We have been at sea for days.

All night it is day. Glycerine shadows fuse sea and
… into something indivisible. Hoar-frost and snow mingle with hail.
This is the end of the inhabitable world we are so far north.

Ice-cold, iron-cold, our lungs tense against the razor chill,
… could be the moon we are so distant from ourselves.
Dreaming and loving here are the same hunger

as we wander in watery exile, storm-beaten
… perishing winds. Ahead the glacial hull looms
spectral in the crushing heaves of pack-ice,

trapped like a fisherman’s float
… the mouth of a silver carp. Tattered sails,
fragments of mast, poke from their crystal coffin

like splintered whale-bone, trepanning the empty heart of blue.
…..For thirteen years they have waited, penitent
as glass angels, black lips welded to alabaster tongues,

untold tales frost-bitten in their throats. Alone
… his log, the Captain holds patient vigil,
awaiting a huff of divine breath.

Peter Doig: White Canoe 1990/1

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

Peter Doig: White Canoe 1990/1: According to the critic Harold Rosenberg, writing in 1952: ‘At a certain moment, the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act…What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event’. In 1987 Michel Leiris suggested that the canvas was ‘a theatre of operations for the assertion of certain values’ rather than simply a pleasing picture. Cy Twombly, Jackson Pollock et al, spilt their pent-up energy in ribbons and ejaculations of frantic paint. When finished, their bravura traces left something of their essential selves behind like a stained bedsheet after a night of passion. But for those growing up in the 70s and 80s, Modernist abstraction began to seem suggestive of bourgeois idealism and macho mystification. According to Frederic Jameson a new mood – Postmodernism – could be identified by works that ‘abjure all pretence to spontaneity and directness of expression, making use instead of forms of pastiche and discontinuity’ (my italics.)

Peter Doig is widely considered one of the most renowned contemporary figurative painters of his generation

As the pendulum swung away from raw emotional revelation, many began to see the efforts of conceptualists, in the line of Du Champs, as ‘works of art’ that carried greater weight than painting. Rugged individualism in both economic and social affairs had become synonymous with the expression of an ‘unrestrained self’ that dominated culture. In reaction, artists such as Mary Kelly, Jenny Holzer and Damien Hirst favoured soiled nappies, graffiti, neon and sharks, over the autobiographical possibilities of paint. Again and again, painting – especially expressive painting – was declared dead. Postmodernism insisted that the goal of ‘originality’ so beloved by Modernism was a form of idealisation. That in so far as it had any meaning, it only did so because of its relationship to other voices. From the Enlightenment on there’d been a belief that art and science might, in some way, lead to moral progress, justice and human happiness, but the late twentieth century was to shatter such optimism. The aesthetic of Modernism was one of nostalgia and the sublime. In contrast, Postmodernism presented the unpresentable as a representation of itself.

Peter Doig White Canoe 1990/1

Eclectic, appropriating and promiscuous its only aim was to express itself in the now, picking up whatever it fancied from art history like a magpie collecting shiny bits and pieces.

Born in Scotland and raised in Trinidad and Canada, Peter Doig is widely considered one of the most renowned contemporary figurative painters of his generation. In 1991 he was awarded the Whitechapel Artist Prize followed by a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. In 2007 his ‘White Canoe’ was sold at Sotheby’s for 11.3 million dollars, setting a record for a living artist. Doig, perhaps, more than any other painter of his generation has reclaimed painting in this fractured postmodern age.

Drawing on personal reminiscences and found images he has explored the slippage between reality, imagination and memory. The material properties of paint and the expressive possibilities of colour have been used to conjure the opaque, inarticulate sensation of remembering. Maintaining a thin line between abstraction, landscape and the figure, he’s appropriated photographic imagery to suggest remembrances that are both real and imagined. The photos he chooses aren’t he says ‘ always that interesting or distinguished. That’s deliberate – I like the fact they’re bland: they leave a lot of space for invention. Painting is about working your way across the surface, getting lost in it…’.

Among his most iconic and haunting paintings is White Canoe 1990/1, part of the series of ‘canoe’ paintings begun after leaving Chelsea School of Art in the early 1990s. While these works might, at first glance, appear to be of traditional subjects, a closer look reveals the diverse influences that have gone into their making. Not only film and photography drawn from popular culture, but the memories of a rural Canadian childhood. For all its seeming nostalgia and romanticism this isn’t a painting made lovingly en plein air in order to capture the inchoate within nature. Rather, it’s a self-conscious construct based on a still taken from the 1980s film Friday the 13tth that shows Camp Crystal Lake at the end of a terrifying 24-hour emotional ordeal.

The canvas contains a single white canoe. Floating on tranquil moon-lit water, it seems to be carrying a single unidentifiable figure. It might be the Lady of Shalott, Ophelia or even a Viking hero. The scene is a magical and mysterious tapestry of paint and would be easy to read through a romantic, pre-Raphaelite lens, as a work that speaks of the isolation and loneliness of the individual. But look more closely and it’s a masterclass in postmodern painting. Here landscape – a traditional subject explored by the romantics as a way of accessing the ‘sublime’ – has been used to demonstrate a knowing understanding of the physical nature of paint. The reading is dependent on the viewer understanding the intended irony of the juxtaposition between the appropriation of an image from an American cult horror movie and the apparent tranquillity of a romantic image – a reflection on water.

Thus the painting isn’t an existential discussion about isolation but rather one that explores the works’ process of making and the viewer’s role in looking at it. The myriad reflections distort our understanding to create a dreamlike world in which we’re unable to arrive at a definitive meaning, as in Velasquez Las Meninas. In true Postmodern style, Doig plunders art history, including such diverse sources as Monet’s waterlilies, Pollock’s mark-making, and Richter’s own photographic appropriations. The ripples and stitches of paint, the veiled layers and splotches of impasto speak not of a lost human psyche but of the nature of painting in the 21st century: the limitations of a flat canvas and the immutability of paint. This, then, is less a painting that addresses the heart but one that knowingly speaks to the eye and the mind, reminding us of the seams of understanding from both the artist’s craft and the history of painting that have gone into its making.

Published in Artlyst

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus 2019

Published in Artlyst

Artlyst Significant Works

Kara Walker Fons Americanus: In this new series, Art Critic, Poet and Novelist Sue Hubbard discusses seminal contemporary artworks.

History moves fast. A great deal has changed since the American artist Kara Walker’s Hyundai Commission Fons Americanus was first shown in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall back in October 2019. The world has been hit by a killer pandemic unprecedented since 1918. Art galleries, theatres and cultural venues have been closed. The world economy is in freefall, and a black man has been brutally killed by the American police (not, sadly, a usual event in itself) but this time captured on video for all the world to see and shared on a thousand Twitter feeds and FB pages. No one can claim they didn’t know; that it was a Communist plot against white America or an accident. It was murder. Homegrown white on black American murder.

Fons Americanus becomes a focus for reflection. A place where we can consider the ongoing legacy of xenophobia and economic corruption

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020

And the result? Well, it’s hard to know whether this will finally be the turning point for black rights, along with an admission by the west as to just how much of its wealth is dependent on the legacy of slavery. It is difficult to know whether the Black Lives Matter campaign, and the ensuing spate of iconoclasm – including throwing the 1895 bronze statue of slave-trader and Member of Parliament, Edward Coulston, into Bristol harbour, has changed how we view history. Will we now read memorials differently? Should they all be removed? Coulston was a philanthropist as well as a slave-trader, but sadly the statue only commemorated the former fact, not the unpalatable truth as to how he acquired his ill-gotten gains. Will the pulling down of such ‘undesirable’ memorials lead us to be more truthful in our analysis of history from now on? Will imperialist veils be pulled back to reveal the many ugly truths that have been buried about our past for too long? Or will such acts simply contribute to a further whitewashing and erasure of history, as has been suggested by the Nigerian-British historian David Olusoga?

When the doors of Tate Modern are re-opened, Kara Walker’s sculpture will resonate with an added frisson because of recent events. It will, no longer, be ‘just’ a comment on ‘history’, a worthy academic analysis of the ‘past’, but an artwork that forces us to accept that racism remains endemic, not merely the heinous crime of a crumbled empire. That it belongs to now, not just to then and, is, therefore, all of our responsibility.

Before the killing of George Floyd and the toppling Coulston, Walker’s work could be read as a clever contemporary comment on imperialism and slavery. A postmodern pastiche on the Victoria Memorial that stands confidently outside of Buckingham Palace and, a nod to the pomposity and sense of entitlement of the Albert Memorial and the many, now, unknown generals riding high around the city on their tall plinths. Walker has claimed that her work functions as a one-person version of the 19th century World Exposition. These glorified trade fairs, filled with works of art, exotic zoological gardens, and the latest scientific wonders, told the approved story about the economic might of Empires and their colonised subjects. The four-tiered fountain explores, with both wit and poignancy, how we have chosen to create historic narratives through stereotypes of race and gender.

Water becomes a binding theme: oceans, waves, journeys from Africa to Liverpool, from Bristol to America, in which millions of Africans were forcibly transported to the New World. Thousands of men, women and children died in this exchange known as the Middle Passage. Ships departed from Europe for African markets with our manufactured goods that were traded for kidnapped Africans. Flesh became a commodity. Lives were turned into objects of commercial exchange.

A black woman stands three meters above the gallery floor spouting jets of water from her mouth and breasts into the shallow shell-like basins bellow. The empire, it’s implied, was literally fed by the milk and blood of those it enslaved. Below are a cast of characters, caricatures of black pop culture and images of blackness borrowed from the 19th and 20th centuries. There are echoes of Turner, and the 24 Negro Melodies composed by the English mixed-race composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose father came from Sierra Leone. So many are implicated as beneficiaries of the slave trade in this story of coercion, cruelty, economic manipulation, murder, rape, and ecological destruction.

Kara Walker unpacks the stories we tell ourselves about the past in order to feel good about who we are to see ourselves as heroes rather than villains. Fons Americanus becomes a focus for reflection. A place where we can consider the ongoing legacy of xenophobia and economic corruption that still remains embedded in our modern world. It also, implicitly, suggests an alternative to the destruction of historic monuments; the creation of new more truthful ones that shed light on different, more educated versions of the past.

Art can’t change the world, as George Steiner made clear in his essay: To Civilise Our Gentleman. The Nazis were made no less bestial because they butchered Jews by day and wept over Rilke at night or were moved by concerts given by the inmates of Theresienstadt who the next day would disappear up the chimneys as ash. Picasso’s Guernica didn’t stop the bombing of the Basque city of that name, or Goya’s Disasters of War change the course of the Peninsular War. Neither did John Singer Sargent’s painting depicting the line of wounded soldiers shuffling towards a dressing station after a mustard attack during the First World War, save the lives of young men sent like donkeys to the front. And yet? Such works mirror ourselves back to ourselves, not as we might like to see ourselves, but as we actually are.

Words: Sue Hubbard Photos Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020

Read More About Kara Walker

Visit Fons Americanus By Kara Walker

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Bird Woman

Ekphrastic Poetry

Words are feathers
on her tongue.
Fledglings struggling to climb
the walls of her chest
clot in her throat.
As she opens her mouth
it fills with a flock
of birds, vomit
of green-black-wings.
Song has become the plumage
of starlings, her lips
drawn into a dysphonic O.
For they have cut her silver
cords with the cold
steel of a whetted knife,
hung them like lights
among the rowed vermin:
the jay, the stoat and the crow,
to grow stiff
in the far coppice,
a warning,
on the gate gamekeeper’s wire.

Moss Woman

Ekphrastic Poetry

All night her skin erupts,
her face a sphagnum mask.
Puffballs sprout
from her nostrils
acorns from her ears.
Her eyelashes are ferns,
pine needles and twigs poke
from her thicket of wild hair,
dreams snag
like sheep’s wool on her spiky briars.
The darkness lures her in
down muddy bridle paths
to a spinney where
she shelters behind
the thick foliage of herself,
her heart in hiding. Here,
memories rot,
rank as the fetid stench
of fox,
and silent birds roost
in her deep woods.
Behind her mossy hood
she inhales the reek
of solitude,
dreams of ancient
of what is concealed,
what is wild, mysterious.

Art in the time of COVID19


First, the Louvre in Paris closed. Then the galleries in London started to shut their doors, one by one, like the “lamps going out all over Europe” as the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey remarked on the eve of the First World War, adding “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Maybe this is too pessimistic an analogy for the London art world. Or maybe not.

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship – Susan Sontag

The art market is dependent on personal interaction: artists’ relationships with their galleries, galleries relationships with curators, staff and collectors. There is no milieu where personal networking is so intrinsic to its function as the art world. It is all about trends and confidence. Chat and charm. So will it ever be the same again after Covid19? There are some who talk of a world Before C19 and After C19 as one might refer to BC and AD.

So, with galleries and auction houses shutting and the stock markets crashing, trade in Art is likely to come to a sudden standstill. Looking at maps of China before the virus and during the virus, the CO2 emissions are drastically down, giving us cleaner air and less pollution. There is, it seems, a silver lining to even the blackest clouds. Might this, therefore, be a metaphor for what, in recent years, has become an over-inflated art market, dependent on money rather than on talent?

The Louvre Paris Photo © Artlyst 2020

What is certain is that artists will retreat to their studios. Studios are safe and artists are used to being alone. Creativity not only helps mental health and anxiety but is a barometer of the social trends and events we live through. As the philosopher, Pascal once, famously, remarked: ‘the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room’. But isolation is essential if we are going to create a painting, a novel, a poem or an installation worth its salts. To turn inward is to find the nub of creativity. Art that is made with one eye on the market is barely Art at all. Before the virus, the world had become used to being frenetically connected 24/7. Art fairs, auctions, exhibitions, private views, gallery dinners, biennales. The credo of postmodernism has been Surface over Depth. Maybe this is the end of an era. As M. Scott Peck wrote: It is not impractical to consider seriously changing the rules of the game when the game is clearly killing you.”

Modernism and postmodernism exalted the complete autonomy of Art, severing its bonds with society. With the collapse of religion and Art as a form of storytelling, it became increasingly about rebellion and the apparent existential absurdity, alienation and futility of contemporary life. But exalted individualism has proved to be neither a creative nor insightful response to the state of the planet. Nor will it be to this current pandemic.

As Susan Sontag wrote: ‘Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship’. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.’ We have become used to a world where everything can be fixed. TB, cancer, infertility. For the first time in living memory, we are being confronted with a situation we can’t ‘fix’. As with any traumatic event, it will be the artists and poets who make sense of it. Who will provide us with the necessary emotional and psychological maps? This moment may, yet, become a tremendous artistic renaissance that will become known to future generations as Art in the Time of Covid19.

And the commercial art world? Well, there will be a lot of weeding out and slimming down. The overblow and hyperbolic are likely to disappear. And what will we be left with? No one can be sure. But with luck, Art that re-engages us with the personal as well as the aesthetic, the ethical and the emotional, Art that respects the planet as well as what is fresh, new and innovative. It’s a challenge to all who are creative. I hope we are up to it.

(My apologies to Gabriel Garcia Márquez for the headline title)

Published in Artlyst

The Story of Silence


Because it has not turned out how I dreamt,
to lie against another’s backbone in the dark

listening to the suck and blow of their dolphin breath,
I return to the edge of sea, sky and land,

where dawn is washed by rain-soaked night,
to reveal a tattered wedding veil of mist

covering the morning’s face.Far from the city’s buzz and blur,
the constant ticker-tape of news,I am postulant to the weather-god,

genuflect to the pull of tides,whisper rosaries to a glassy moon,
and great Atlantic storms.At break of day I light a beeswax candle

so, solitude becomes a formof holy erudition,
the I an eye, before I mergewith the savage silence.

Hugh Mendes:
The Inverted Gaze

Art Catalogues

In 1972 John Berger suggested that “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” The male gaze, he argued in Ways of Seeing, for centuries defined the way we looked at the female subject. That subject, in turn, aware that she was being looked at, stared out from the picture space – whether in Ingres’ Grande Odalisque or a porno pinup – with an expression calculated to titillate the male viewer.

For in its afterlife…the original undergoes a change – Walter Benjamin

In both post-Renaissance European painting and contemporary girly magazines a woman, Berger suggested, “has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.” Yet all images, he implied, are ambiguous because there are always alternative narratives, alternative stories. Other ways of seeing. Past and present coalesce in a turbulence of contradiction.

Hugh Mendes ‘Obituary: Frida Kahlo’, 2019 Oil on linen 40x30cm

Imagine two mirrors facing each other. You stand in the middle and your image multiplies, becoming more and more distant from your original self. Each reflection is watched by those in the other mirrors, becoming further removed. Meaning is distorted, modified and gradually changed. As Walter Benjamin argued, in an age of pictorial reproduction, the initial reading of a painting or object is altered by the making of copies. It is within this prism of reflected meanings that Hugh Mendes has created his series of female self-portraits in the form of obituaries. These follow on from his recent show where the subjects were all men. After the death of his father, Mendes went back to art school to do an MA. He had been painting newspaper-based images since he graduated in 2001. The first was an iconic photograph of Princess Margaret by her, then, husband, Lord Snowden. Around this time, he also began to notice the often unconventional images used by The Independent newspaper in their obituaries. Until this point, he had been painting still lives. Now he was to move from natures mortes to painting death notices.

Pre-photography the only way for an artist to record their presence was through the self-portrait. For a female artist to paint herself, rather than be the subject of a male painter, was to take agency over the way she presented herself to the world. Within art history, it has all too often been stated that there were few women artists of real talent. Yet the structural sexism of art schools and academia actively contributed to the perpetuation of gender hierarchies. In this series, Hugh Mendes not only acknowledges female artists of exceptional talent from Sofonisba Anguissola to Frida Kahlo but inverts the proprietorial ownership implicit in the male gaze into a complex conundrum. Here a contemporary male artist paints copies of historic female self-portraits taken from images reproduced in newspapers. In this hall of distorting mirrors, we are left with more questions than answers. Who is doing the looking? What is truth and what fiction? With whom does the narrative voice lie? If it is the case, as much feminist art history claims, that the male gaze bestowed on the female subject is a form of consumption and paternalism, how are we read this intricate interplay, or understand gender and (re)production when the images being produced are self-portraits by female artists of the far and near past, used by a contemporary male artist?

In his essay: The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin suggests that: “translatability is an essential quality of certain works, which is not to say that it is essential that they be translated; it means rather that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability…by virtue of its translatability, the original is closely connected with the translation; in fact, this connection is all the closer since it is no longer of importance to the original.” It is this act of translation that lies at the heart of Hugh Mendes’ enterprise. As he stated when I visited him in his studio, “Art is an act of the imagination. What matters is to get into the headspace of my subjects.” In so doing he brings fresh expression to the way these images are read, and these women are reassessed in an era of the copy and social media.

He finds most of his images online, prints them out and makes a collage using the original newspaper typeface. The first were accurate transcriptions of the source image but, more recently, he has begun to make them up. All his subjects are of personal significance to him. He tries to give a strong sense of the person. He looks at their notebooks, watches videos, and attempts to create dialogues. The original newsprint obituaries are flimsy and ephemeral, but his careful, studious paintings become a form reincarnation where the impermanent becomes permanent, the transitory ossifies into a lasting memento mori.

Hugh Mendes is a great craftsman and a teacher at the City and Guilds Art School. He knows about colour theory and how to draw. His academic prowess is visible throughout this project. It is not simply a question of making copies. These paintings are not taken from life but from a flat photo, already at one remove from the subject. He subtly alludes to and understands the different styles and techniques, how each artist used colour, while making the work recognisably his own.

Stand in front of these paintings and the subjects all make eye contact with the viewer, challenging assumptions about the self-portrait, the role of women in art and our understanding of the copy. In this hall of mirrors, truth becomes many-layered, a complex palimpsest of meanings where the ephemeral is rendered permanent. Through this transformative process of looking, these women artists are not only returned to themselves but create a haunting discourse on gender, history and reproduction.


14 February – 14 March 2020

Charlie Smith London 336 Old Street, 2nd Floor, London EC1V 9DR

Published in Artlyst

London Art Fair

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

London Art Fair’s Positive Spin On A Diverse Range Of Work

Being asked to write about an art fair is a bit like being commissioned to write about Waitrose and compare tins of baked beans with sardines or chocolate biscuits. These items have little in common, except they are all food and sold in the same venue. Pretty much the same can be said of the modern art fair if you substitute art for food. The variety is enormous from the good, the bad, to the merely ugly. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you may come across something outstanding.

The 2020 London Art Fair Museum Partner is the Southampton City Art Gallery

For many years the London Art Fair, once the big hitter in town, seemed to suffer an identity crisis after the arrival of that parvenue Frieze. But over the last few years under the direction of Sarah Monk it has settled into a valuable role promoting Modern British Art, whilst also cultivating an interesting Art Project space on the upper floor – now in its 16th year and featuring 18 galleries from 5 countries – where younger artists and innovative dealers can exhibit.

There’s a diverse range of work this year. At the Eagle Gallery/EMH Arts, the painter on show is not young. Natalie Dower is in her 80s, but her work is worth looking at because it’s fresh and intelligent, embracing the vocabulary of Thirties Vorticism, along with colour theory and geometry. These have been hung in conversation with a range of younger artists that includes an abstract paperwork by Andrew Bick. At the other end of the visual spectrum, Standpoint is showing sculptures by Anna Reading. At once both familiar and odd, they sit somewhere between architecture and biomorphic forms. While in the Arts Project Screening Room the exhibition, Playtime, topically asks how we assess and commodify contemporary ideas of leisure.

This year Alister Hicks has guest-curated Dialogues, which pairs international contemporary galleries in conversation around the theme Talk! Talk! Talk! that focuses on the battle between text and image. Domobaal has included Christopher Hanlon. an interesting painter trained at the Royal College, who paints everyday objects, including stones and aspidistra. These have an uncanny feel. Rooted in the tradition of painting, they engage the viewer in a conversation that subverts the very genre in which they have been fabricated. In contrast, on Division of Labour’s stand, Rosie McGinn’s inflated figures bop up and down like demented, hipsters, challenging you to either love or hate them. The second edition of Platform, Threading Forms curated by Candida Steven, demonstrates the variety of fine art textiles with work that includes the hand-stitched and the machine-made, tapestry, deconstructed fabrics and collage. While Photo50, inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, focuses on three main issues: how women occupy space, the psychological effects of space, and how time affects space.

Charlie Smith London Painting
Left Geraldine Swayne Middle Hugh Mendes

The 2020 London Art Fair Museum Partner is the Southampton City Art Gallery. Anyone interested in Modern British art is in for a treat. The works selected reveal the depth and variety of the collection, which has been ‘designated’ by the Arts Council of England as having ‘pre-eminent national significance’. It includes paintings from the Camden Town Group and St. Ives, through to works by Turner prize nominees and winners. Some of the gems on show here are Mark Gertler’s poignant The Rabbi and His Grandchild, 1913, C. W. Nevinson’s tautly modernist Loading Timber Southampton Docks 1917, and a gloriously ebullient Roger Hilton, Figure 61. In the commercial galleries, there are still a number of fine Modern British paintings for sale such as Ivon Hitchens’ Yellow Autumn from a Terrace 1948 at Osborne Samuel.

Other works that caught my eye as I wandered through the many booths were the fine seascapes by Irish artist Donald Teskey at Art First, and the exquisitely detailed pigment prints of trees by Santeri Tuori at Purdy Hicks. While at Giles-Baker Smith there were some rather beautiful tondos of imagined landscapes and cloudy moonlit nights, inspired by photography and English Romanticism, by Gill Rocca.

This is an art fair where, if you are a novice collector, you can still find things worth buying for under a thousand pounds. While for those of you feeling flush there are some very good examples of British Modernism to be had for your walls.

Published in Artlyst

Charlotte Salomon at Jewish Museum London

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

And Still the Flowers Grow
Life? Or Theatre?

Charlotte Salomon, Jewish Museum London
8 November 2019 – 1 March 2020

Although the scientific jury is still out on the matter, there is evidence that trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, and then be passed down through subsequent generations. There is no measurable mutation. Instead the mark appears to alter the mechanism by which the gene is converted into functioning proteins. The change is epigenetic rather than genetic. This might go some way to explain the life and work of the German artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-43). For she was, to use the art historian Griselda Pollock’s words, ‘a transgenerational carrier of encrypted trauma, of undisclosed secrets.’

So, who was Charlotte Salomon and why should we remember her work? Well, the first part of the question is easier to answer than the second. Born in Berlin, her family was Jewish, well-to-do and assimilated. Her father, Albert Salomon, fought for Germany in the First World War, later becoming a surgeon. The household was musical, cultured and enjoyed a comfortable life. They celebrated Christmas and went skating. But at the age of eight tragedy hit. Charlotte’s mother died, apparently from influenza, and her father re-married a well-known opera singer, Paula Lindberg. For a while Charlotte attended art school in Berlin, one of a tiny number of Jewish students admitted due to her father’s status as a war veteran. There she won a prestigious prize with her work Death and a Maiden. Though, as a Jew, she was unable to claim it and left soon after.

A shy, introverted girl she was sent, after Kristallnacht, to stay with her grandparents in Villefanche, in Pétain’s France, not yet annexed by the Nazis. In 1940 she and her grandfather were interned in a concentration camp. On their release they went into hiding, helped by a generous American, Ottilie Moore. It was during this period that Charlotte produced her huge, enigmatic and multi-layered artwork Life? or Theatre? She also married the Romanian Jew, Alexander Nagler, before being re-arrested and sent to Auschwitz. Such are the bare bones of her biography. But what is Life? or Theatre?

Put simply it is one of the most original art works of the mid-twentieth century (though it only came to light in the 1970s) and one of the hardest to classify. A visual autobiography where the authorial voice functions like a Greek chorus, the work was created from hundreds of numbered gouache paintings with textual overlays, conceived to be accompanied by musical interludes. A memoir of becoming akin to a self-conducted Freudian analysis, it is an Orphic journey into an underworld of trauma and a fight for psychic survival against the dark forces of a family’s history.

But Life? or Theatre? is no naïve outsider artwork. Rather it is a project of extraordinary ambition and complexity. For all its idiosyncrasy and refusal to be pinned down by fixed meanings, it is firmly rooted in the work of Modernist painters such as Kirchner, Nolde, Käthe Kollwitz, Munch and Van Gogh, as well as the silent Expressionist cinema of German filmmakers such as Fritz Lang. Filmic in its unfolding, it employs the narrative tension of a Greek drama or Bildungsroman. Yet, it is steeped in the tradition of German satirical musical theatre – Singspiele – such as Brecht and Kurt Weill, it can be read as a theatrical ‘happening’, a visual anthem to memory and a mission to find meaning in life through the making of art; all created under the shadow of the Holocaust.

Charlotte Salomon’s family carried many secrets. Her mother, Franziska Grünwald, did not in fact die of influenza, as her eight-year old daughter was led to believe, but by suicide. One of eight female and two male relatives to die by their own hand at a time when suicide was regarded as a sign of degeneration that could infect whole families. Other relatives included Charlotte’s aunt and grandmother (who, like her mother, threw herself out of a window, in an event witnessed by Charlotte). Remembered by those who knew her as a shy, taciturn girl, it was her friendship with the penniless singing teacher, Alfred Wolfsohn, who gave singing lessons to her stepmother, that provided her with a philosophical and artistic road-map out of the slough of despond that she inhabited, of which she wrote: ‘If I can’t enjoy life and work, I will kill myself….’

Wolfsohn had served at the front during the First World War and had been traumatised with shell-shock. To cure himself he developed a mechanism that utilised the voice as a restorative vehicle, suggesting that there was a connection between death, the human soul and artistic expression. It was he who taught Charlotte to look death and trauma in the eye, in order to become free of fear. As a result, she fell deeply in love with him. A love which, despite some evidence of a physical relationship between them, was largely unrequited. Although Wolfsohn played stepmother and stepdaughter against each other, he believed in Charlotte’s artistic ability and gave her the emotional courage to embark on a cathartic journey that led to her death-denying, life-affirming creation Life? or Theatre?

It was in the South of France during the summer of 1940, that she found, with the support of Ottilie Moore, the space to delve deep into her psyche to produce over a thousand images. Divided into three parts: ‘Prelude’, ‘Main Section’ and ‘Epilogue’, not unlike the acts of a play, the ‘actors’ in Life? or Theatre? are types whose naming serves an ironic purpose. They list her dramatis personae, painted in capital letters of red, blue and yellow gouache, approximate to those who peopled her life. In the transparent overlay for The Monster, a blue and red skeleton with huge hands fills the sheet of paper, looming above a row of Lilliputian figures drawn in red. The accompanying text reads in the third person: ‘And whenever she has to walk along the endless wide high dark passage in her grandparents’ home, she imagines something terrible, with skeleton’s limbs that have something to do with her mother. Then she is filled with panic and begins to run- run-run….’ This skeleton is the quintessence of a child’s night terrors. It is Nosferatu, or the German bone man, Knochenmann, a bogeyman that stands in contrast to the daytime images of children playing with hoops in the park or building snow men.

It is only when we are drawn further into the drama, into the image of a copulating couple in The Night Struggle, or the anxious Munchian painting of Charlotte Kann in the bathroom, or the red painting where her alter ego the artist Charlotte Salomon (who signs herself CS) has written, in urgent capital letters, ‘Dear God please let me not go mad’ that we begin to suspect that death, desire and lust are closely interlinked in the destabilisation of this family. Though mythic and elusive, we start to see a history of dysfunction in these texts and images that runs through the generations centred, for Charlotte, on her grandfather.

The young Charlotte Kann kneeling on her bed, dreaming of love. Charlotte Salomon, gouache on paper
The young Charlotte Kann is shown waiting for the angel of her mother to arrive. Charlotte Salomon, 1941–42, gouache on paper
Nazis in the street, Hitler is named chancel- lor of Germany, 30 Jan 1933. Charlotte Salomon, 1941– 42, gouache on paper
‘And from that came: Life or theatre?’ Charlotte Salomon, 1941–42, gouache on paper

At the start of the ‘Prologue’ the paintings are whimsical and full of period detail – a cross between Chagall and the illustrator Edward Ardizzone. But as the work progresses, they become looser, more immediate, more frantic and expressionistic, as if the artist knows that she is running out of time. In several images from the ‘Main Section’, rows of bodies lie inert or half-sleeping, unconsciously prophesying the piles of dead later to be discovered in Auschwitz.

The manuscript of Life? or Theatre? was found safely in the hands of Ottlie Moore. She presented it to Charlotte Salomon’s father and stepmother who had managed to survive the Holocaust in Amsterdam. Not knowing what to do with it, they took advice from Anne Frank’s father, and presented it to the city’s Jewish Museum. It was not, though, until 2012, when Franz Weisz made his film Charlotte, that the ‘Postscript’ pages, written in energetic painted block capitals, which had not formed part of the original donation, were brought to light. In them was the, apparent, shocking confession that Charlotte Salomon had poisoned her grandfather with an omelette laced with the barbiturate Veronal. The case, made by Griselda Pollock, in her enormous Yale Study on the artist, is that we cannot be certain whether this was true or if Charlotte was acting out of a repressed psychic desire. What, perhaps, we can be more sure of in this complex palimpsest, a monumental Modernist artwork that witnessed the rise of fascism, is the familial sexual abuse and domestic incest, which contributed to the many suicides within this family.

The great irony is that the final painting of Life? Or Theatre? shows a young female sitting in a bathing costume painting and looking out towards the blue Mediterranean (a hopeful future?). Inked directly on her back, like a tattoo, are the words Leben oder Theater – minus the question marks. The poignancy of the image is that it suggests, against the odds, that Charlotte Salomon had found a way to confront her traumatic memories through her body of work. That she chose life – only to be sent to Drancy internment camp and then, on the 7 October 1943, to Auschwitz, where on the 10 October, at around four months pregnant at the age of 26, she was gassed – is all the more tragic. Its complex richness Life? or Theatre? remains open to multiple readings. At one and the same time it is a theatre of memory, a confession, a study of gender roles and Jewish subjectivity. A fantasia. But most of all, it is the history of the struggle of one young woman to find, through the practice of painting, a continued reason to live.

Charlotte Salomon painting in the garden of L’Hermitage, c.1939
Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, © Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Charlotte Sa- lomon®.

Published in The London Magazine

Dora Maar: Shedding The Muse Label

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

In 1998 the first sales of the Dora Maar collection were put on sale in Paris. They revealed a life dedicated to photography, painting and poetry, executed in the city’s avant-garde milieu of the 1930s.

Like many female artists, she is best known for her biography as helpmeet to a more famous male artist

Pablo Picasso The Conversation 1937

Maar’s friends included the poet Paul Eluard and the painter Balthus. At the time, the international art market was buzzing with excitement about the Picassos up for auction that season. In comparison, Maar’s work met with relative indifference. For most, her chief claim to fame was – with her dramatic dark hair and smouldering eyes – as a surrealist icon and the ‘muse’ to Picasso’s eternally lachrymose ‘weeping woman’. Like many female artists, she is best known for her biography as helpmeet to a more famous male artist and for her psychological and emotional difficulties. As a result, her artistic output has been overshadowed by Picasso’s giant oeuvre and personality.

This autumn Tate Modern redresses this art-historical redaction with the first UK retrospective of Maar’s surreal photographs, provocative photomontages, and paintings. Her incisive eye spanned six-decades of commercial commissions, social documentary and street photography, moving from Picasso influenced paintings through to abstraction.

Born Henriette Théodora Markovitch in 1907, she preferred to be called Dora. – Her father was an architect and her mother ran a fashion boutique. Raised between Argentina and Paris she had a cosmopolitan childhood, attending one of Paris’s most progressive art schools. In her 20s she turned to commercial photography, as it gave greater security than painting, sharing a darkroom with the photographer Brassai. Young and ambitious, her first photographic commission in 1931 was for a book by the art historian Germain Bazin, followed by publications in a range of magazines from the literary to the commercial. In 1932 she set up a studio with the respected set designer Pierre Kéfer, under the name Kéfer-Dora Maar.

Female photographers were rare between the wars. Maar was described as a ‘brunette huntress of images’. Such language classified women photographers as explorers traversing the boundaries of a society where their autonomy was still largely restricted. Beginning to compete for jobs in fashion, traditionally the domain of men, they were also breaking taboos to work in nude photography and erotica. When Maar entered the workplace, photography was replacing hand drawings in advertisements to promote shampoo and cosmetics such as Ambre Solaire, used for the newly fashionable pastime of sunbathing,

In these interwar years, the idea of the liberated modern women was promoted by advertisers and magazine editors. Maar liked to subvert the idea of a woman’s conventional role by slipping in imagery that was considered daringly modern, such as women wearing trousers or smoking. In two photographs taken for L’Art vivant, she uses photomontage and the insertion of a female model to destabilise the scale of the object advertised – a car – that most modern women could neither afford to own nor were able to drive. Her pictures were created by combining layered negatives to produce a single image that, according to the critic, Rosalind Krauss, ‘ensures that a photograph will be seen as surrealist…and always constructed’. Shots, such as those of Jane Loris, (Prévert) in a bathing suit doing callisthenics, or the erotic experimentations with the model Assia Granatouroff – the model who exemplified the 1930s nude – highlighted the growing interest in health and fitness that had been gaining popularity since the First World War.

Dora Maar Nusch Éluard

The 1930s in Europe saw the worst economic depression in modern times. It was in this climate that photographers used their new art form to document the social deprivation they were witnessing. Some of Maar’s most affecting images were taken in Barcelona and London. Committed to left-wing politics, she not only showed compassion for a lot of those she photographed but had a keen eye for irony. This can be seen in her image, a city businessman down on his luck and looking for work while selling matches. Dressed fastidiously in cravat and pince-nez, holding a bowler hat, he might be off to his Mayfair club.

It was in the winter of 1935-6 that Dora Maar met Pablo Picasso who was emerging from the breakdown of his relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, with whom he had a child. He and Maar collaborated together in the darkroom, she teaching him specialised photographic techniques that enabled him to explore the possibilities of cliché verre, (painting combined with photography), while he encouraged her to paint. Her painting, The Conversation 1937, in brown and rust tones, addresses her relationship with Picasso’s former lover. The two women sit at a table. The blonde Marie-Thérèse, with whom Picasso remained close, facing the viewer, the brunette Dora Maar her back turned to them.

After learning of the attack on Guernica, Picasso began making preparatory sketches for his most famous painting, which Maar documented as a commission for Cahiers d’art. In contrast to her photography, her painting is much less known. In the dark war years, during which her father disappeared to Argentina, her mother died and her relationship with Picasso began to break down, she returned to painting, creating melancholy landscapes and still lives of jugs and pears, painted in grey and brown tones that mirrored the dreariness of her solitary life under the Occupation.

Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso

In 1945 Maar began to divide her time between Paris and a new home in the South of France. This saw a period of looser mark making and gestural impressions of nature made in ink, oil and watercolour. Though photography still interested her, the social documentation of the world outside her studio did not. She became more involved in seeing what she could create in the darkroom by laying household objects on photo-sensitive paper or tracing light across the surface. These works were only revealed after her death. In 1946, on the verge of making her name, she had stopped exhibiting. The psychic distress following her breakup with Picasso led to a decade long silence when she did not show her work, though she did continue to create in the privacy of her studio.

And how should we rate her now? While her painting is always in danger of being compared with the great talent of her lover Picasso, it is her witty, stylish and compassionate photographs that caught the zeitgeist of the times in which she lived, that are likely to be her true legacy.

Top Photo Dora Maar (detail) “The years lie in wait for you” (c. 1935). (Portrait of Nusch Eluard). Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper

Published in Artlyst

Rembrandt-Velázquez and de Hooch: Two Major Autumn Exhibitions

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

If you are planning an imminent trip to the Netherlands, there are two must-see exhibitions on at the moment. Pieter de Hooch in Delft: From the Shadow of Vermeer at the Museum Prinsenhof, Delft and Rembrandt-Velázquez: Dutch & Spanish Masters at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Known as the Golden Age of painting, the 17th century was artistically an enormously fruitful time

By 1650 the bustling, prosperous city of Delft had emerged as one of the country’s leading artistic centres. Among its residents were painters such as Johannes Vermeer, Carel Fabritius and Hendrick van Vliet. It was then that Pieter de Hooch, the son of a bricklayer from Rotterdam, moved to the city of his mother’s birth to begin a radically new tradition of painting. At the start of his career, he painted primarily soldiers. Guardroom scenes of drinking and card games in a muted palette, often with a serving girl in attendance. In these genre works, he paid little attention to defining the surrounding space and architectural elements – something that would later become his hallmark. Domestic interiors were often crudely depicted in brown and grey brush strokes, in contrast to the bright colours and details of the figures. In A Seated Soldier with a Standing Serving Woman, for example, the bright red of the woman’s dress and the reflections on the metal of the soldier’s cuirass, stand out against the indistinct dark background, demonstrating De Hooch’s growing skill of capturing the effects of light.

Pieter de Hooch Card Players in a Sunlit Room 1658

However, it was after 1655 that he began to portray the domestic life behind the facades of Delft houses. This was an innovation. He was 29 years old and producing stunning works of courtyards and interiors full of warmth and saturated light. What is so pioneering about these paintings is not, simply, the exact rendering of detail – the brick walls and tiled floors painted with separate brushstrokes as if to make his bricklayer father proud or the experimental perspectives and radiant light beaming into these spare, tranquil domestic settings through open doors – but the prominence of the feminine. Over and over again, De Hooch produces scenes of great tenderness where women and children are the central protagonists. A woman in a white bonnet holds the hand of a small girl. Their gaze is both sensitive and mutual — one of caring familiarity. A bucket and broom caste on the brick floor of the courtyard suggests ongoing domestic chores. The woman may have been a maid. In the left-hand of the painting is another woman – possibly the lady of the house – with her back to the viewer. She is standing in an archway that leads through to another courtyard flooded with light. On loan from the National Gallery of London, this painting is one of six dated 1658 and is, rightly, among De Hooch’s most famous works.

Along with The Mother, that depicts a woman unlacing her red bustier to feed an infant lying in a crib on the floor beside her, and A Mother Delousing her Child’s Hair, known as ‘A Mother’s Duty’, it shows an astonishing empathy with the lives of women. De Hooch presents 17th century Delft as a place where one would have liked to live. Life, here, is comfortable, bourgeois, unhurried and orderly. Dogs wander in an out. Men and women chat companionably. In A Mother’s Duty, the fur of the small mutt sitting on the brick floor staring out into the garden is illuminated by the light from the open door. He is both a doggy dog and a symbol of fidelity. It is, perhaps, not too far-fetched to say that in these mother and children scenes De Hooch presents a secular vision of Madonna and Child. Later, he was to move to Amsterdam and paint a more affluent clientele, in more opulent interiors. However, it is the paintings executed in Delft that created his reputation. The aim of this one-off exhibition is to bring him out from beneath the shadow of the more famous Vermeer, to restore his affectionate, beautifully observed paintings of light and perspective to their rightful place within the canon of 17th-century Dutch art.
Rembrandt Self Portrait

Rembrandt Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul 1661

Over in Amsterdam, there is a special collaboration between the Rijksmuseum and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid to mark the Year of Rembrandt, 2019 and the 200th anniversary of the Prado. The exhibition presents an outstanding selection of paintings by 17th century Dutch and Spanish masters including Rembrandt, Velázquez, Murillo, Hals, Zubarán and Vermeer. Known as the Golden Age of painting, the 17th century was artistically an enormously fruitful time for both the Netherlands and Spain. Although there was no direct contact between south and north, it is fascinating to see the stylistic and intellectual synchronicity between the different artists. Paintings of these masters have been displayed in pairs. This extenuates both similarities and divergences. Themes range through religion and faith, wealth and love, to the use of light and shadow.

Nothing tells us more about the personalities and differences of Rembrandt and Velázquez than their self-portraits. Velázquez with his handsome head of dark hair, waxed mustache and courtly white ruff sits beside Rembrandt with his beefy pug nose, in a black velvet beret and jerkin. Though they inhabited very different social milieus, their bravura artistic skill, along with their understanding of human nature, renders them supreme among artists of their time. Though, for my money, it will always be Rembrandt, with his existential gaze, which turns the emotional screws the tightest to bring tears to the eyes.

Catholic Spain and the Protestant north are exemplified by Zubarán’s symbol of Christ’s suffering, the ‘Mystic Lamb’, which is shown alongside a spare and sparsely decorated Protestant Church by Sendredam. Here iconoclasm is banished as the Word of God resounds from the pulpit. One highly imaginative paring is that of Zubarán’s St. Serapion, 1628 set beside the Threatened Swan 1650 by Jan Asselijn. The former shows the saint, his arms raised and bound in flowing white sleeves, sacrificing himself for his faith while the fluttering white wings of the swan become a symbol for Johan de Witt, who was assassinated in 1672 for his political beliefs.

Velázquez The Buffoon El Primo 1644

Two outdoor scenes by Velázquez and Vermeer, View of the Gardens of the Villa Medici in Rome circa 1650 and Vermeer’s View of Houses of Delft circa 1658, illustrate their interest in the use of horizontal and vertical effects within the picture plane. However, if this was a competition, the Vermeer wins hand down for atmosphere and intimacy. Meditation and religious reveries are explored in a pairing of Murillo and Rembrandt. While Murillo shows Christ before his crucifixion as a Man of Sorrows, Rembrandt paints his own son Titus as a Franciscan monk bringing secular love into the work.

During this period Spain and the Netherlands were very different, though yoked together by war for much of these artists lives. Spain was a long-established Catholic world power, while the Netherlands was a nascent small Protestant republic, with an emerging middle-class. Nevertheless, for both these countries, the 17th century proved to be a Golden Age for art.

Top Photo: King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and King Felipe VI of Spain officially opened the Rembrandt-Velázquez exhibition. Photo courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Inset photos 2-4 by Sue Hubbard ©

Rembrandt-Velázquez: Dutch & Spanish Masters 11 October 2019 – 19 January 2020 Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam – Pieter de Hooch: From the Shadow of Vermeer Museum Prinsenhof, Delft October 11, 2019 through February 16, 2020

Published in Artlyst

Susan Hiller
An Appreciation

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

On my way to Tate Modern in the rain, last night, I smiled, thinking just how much Susan Hiller would have liked that there was to be an evening there in her honour. Susan could be famously grumpy and the last time we had lunch together she spent much of it complaining that the Tate didn’t support her or women artists. She was, justifiably, cross, too, that she’d never been made an RA’ ‘Some of my students have, but I don’t fit. I’m not part of the establishment.’ But this grumpy aspect was but a small part of her complex, generous personality. Erudite, eclectic, well-read and curious she was one of the most original minds I’ve had the privilege of knowing.

Her brilliance was both critical and aesthetic

I first met her in 1999 when I and the artist/critic Simon Morley invited her to be part of an ambitious touring show, Chora, which had the paradoxical goal of representing the unrepresentable and naming the unnameable, grounded in the Platonic concept of the chora as explored by Julia Kristeva. This notion sought to name a ‘receptacle of becoming’ or a ‘placeless place’ that was central to chart – using psychoanalytic methodology – a level of consciousness that lay beyond the ‘prison-house of language’.

Susan Hiller & Robin Klassnik, ‘Running on Empty’, 2017. Stills from single channel video on monitor with sound. Courtesy of the estate of Susan Hiller and Matt’s Gallery, London

Susan was immediately interested in the idea and offered us Study for Alphabets I, 1989. C-Type photograph on Agfa lustre. These luminous ‘graphisms’ (as Barthes called such ‘words’ in his writing on Cy Twombly) looked like delicate Chinese ideograms. Automatism was, for Hiller, a means of escaping the hierarchies of a male language system into a more ‘feminine’ ‘fruitful incoherence’. She was, to her core, a feminist and champion of the female voice. Language, gender and desire were the terrain of her work. Going where few artists of her generation and even fewer of the current generation dared go, she stretched boundaries between disciplines, ideas and concepts. The marginalised, the ephemeral and the everyday, were represented in ways that were strange, surprising and uncanny.

Her brilliance was both critical and aesthetic. An American by birth she studied at Smith College and did graduate work in anthropology. Having completed her PhD, she became disillusioned by academia and, during a lecture on African art, according to her friend the writer Lucy Lippard, began taking notes in pictures rather than words, an experience she called ‘an exquisite sensation’. Thus, began her exploration of the dialectics of inside and outside, her pursuit of both ‘analysis and ecstasy’ sought in the space between the ‘rational’ and ‘irrational.’ Inhabiting the ground between the spiritual and the mundane, she was continuously searching for a new language outside that of the dominant culture.

Dream and psychoanalytic investigations were of huge importance. From her Dream Mapping (1974) to her stunningly original installation From the Freud Museum 1992-94, (commissioned by the Freud Museum and later shown at the Tate). The Sisters of Menon, originally shown in 1973, was a received ‘dictation’ that arrived in a dream. Menon being an anagram for both ‘no men’ and ‘nomen’ or ‘name’.

Susan’s cultural interests were enormous, as was the range of materials with which she chose to make her work from photographs, films, videos, books and ashes. She played with the dynamics of a Punch and Judy show, investigated science fiction and UFOs. In Belshazzar’s Feast, the 1983 video installation acquired by the Tate, she explored through her tongues of flame – that in themselves resemble a form of automatic writing – the rehabilitation of a dormant collective imagination, whilst managing to evoke images of home and hearth and the holocaust.

Susan Hiller: Ghost / TV
25 September – 27 October
Matt’s Gallery London

Published in Artlyst

David Oates

Art Catalogues

The assumption of being an individual is our greatest limitation
Pir Vilayat Khan (Sufi teacher)

In a world where high visibility, pastiche and irony are the hallmarks of so many contemporary artists, there is something invigorating about the quiet minimalism and lack of ego in David Oates’ approach. All too often, in our consumer society, life and art present themselves as an endless accumulation of meaningless spectacles that lack a unifying narrative. In the layered and slippery space of postmodernism so much lacks coherence.

In contrast, David Oates’ concerns are serious and focused, both painterly and philosophical. There is a potent charge to his layered surfaces, which give a sense of illusionistic, inchoate space that is physical as well as metaphysical. Time and the cosmos are evoked, as are questions of our place within the matrix of the universe. The paintings in the Kiss series are made on bare, sized canvas to emphasise their physicality and allusion to industrial mass-production. Not only are a series of eclipses implied but also a relationship to the body, in the semblance of a spine and the emotive title. The dark red/grey Kiss 8 is an exception to the general run of this group, being made painstakingly from thinly built layers of glazed paint.

In other works, such as the Vampire series, carefully executed circular holes penetrate the canvas, reminding us of the literal reality of the painting’s surface, whilst also calling to mind the illusion of skin or a membrane, of the difference between inside and outside. What is entered through these cut-outs is another dimension, a void; an implicitly transformative space. The traces of paint left on the edges of the canvas attest to the history of the works’ making.

A line or slash appears to hover vertically on the canvas in the Janus series. Though often barely perceptible, the mark seems to float on the surface, whilst also functioning as an aperture into a different realm, similar to Barnett Newman’s zips or Lucio Fontana’s slashes.

History has always been important to David Oates. In the 1980s he created a series of figurative works entitled Prototypes, images of a generic Everyman from the First World War that carried the weight of our collectively fading memory of those catastrophic events. Metaphors of archaeology permeate his spare, lyrical paintings and drawings. In what is covered up and forgotten, along with what is half-remembered and tentatively revealed, he creates a series of poetic palimpsests.

Sue Hubbard September 2019

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Tate frames William Blake

Published in The Art Newspaper

Art Criticism

Nearly two centuries after his death, the visionary artist’s work has a new relevance in a fractured and febrile Britain

LONDON. Major exhibitions are a long time in the making but Tate Britain’s survey of William Blake’s (1757-1827) work, the largest in the UK for a generation, could not be more prescient. The British poet and painter’s exploration of the narratives of Albion—the ancient, mythological name for Britain—point to a central question for our times: what does it mean to be British?

Living in London’s Soho and Lambeth in the late 1790s, he was well aware of the atmosphere of febrile radicalism. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 gave a political urgency to his views, while new radical groups were emerging in the British capital, demanding political change. Blake was employed as an engraver by the Unitarian bookseller Joseph Johnson, which became a centre for prominent radicals including Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Out of this intellectual ferment, Blake created some of the most emblematic images in the history of British art and has been an inspiration to numerous artists and writers.

Tate Britain will bring together more than 300 of the artist’s rarely seen works and re-imagine his output as he intended it to be experienced. Vast frescos that were never fully realised, such as The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (around 1805-09), will be brought to life by being digitally enlarged and projected onto the gallery walls.

Vast frescoes that were never realised will be brought to life by being projected onto the gallery walls in a new light

Blake’s colour engraving Albion Rose (around 1793) is loosely based on Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

The exhibition will include a recreation of Blake’s ill-fated 1809 exhibition in a room above his family hosiery shop, the artist’s only significant attempt to enter the public arena as a painter, and will open with Albion Rose (around 1793), a nude male figure loosely based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, that explores the founding myth of Britain. This ideal is set against the prevalence of what Blake saw as the evils of populism and austerity that have their parallels in our own current politics. This extraordinary seer, who foreshadowed Surrealism and Expressionism, has found a fresh relevance in our moment of national crisis nearly two centuries after his death.

The exhibition is supported by Tate Patrons and Members.
William Blake, Tate Britain, London, 11 September- 2 February 2020

Published in The Art Newspaper

Snail Woman

Ekphrastic Poetry

At dawn she picks
mottled spirals
from beneath the lush hostas
chewed overnight to green lace,
fishes them from the white saucer
of treacherous milk, watches
as the grey-tongue bodies glisten
then fizz to mucus
in the trail of cruel salt.
Later she boils the brindled husks
to remove the taste of gritty
garden earth, builds them
now sanitised and cleansed,
into a ziggurat,
then slithers inside. In its cool
interiors she grows small, soft,
viscous as putty,
curled in the hidden chambers
tries to understand
the sounds of the world outside.
In the quiet she whispers
into this silence of shells,
listening for an echo of her
own breath. She longs
to speak but already
her tongue is turning to slime

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

A Necklace of Tongues

Ekphrastic Poetry

All morning she sits
stitching a necklace of tongues
in her high window,
picking each inert slab

from the shallow porcelain dish
holding its brass-cold weight
muted as a muffled bell,
heavy in the dip of her open palm.

Last night snowflakes
melted like kisses,
like salt
on their warm skin,

now her silver needle
pushes through the thick-muscled
root trussing
each glossal silence

with meticulous petit point.
If a worm has five hearts
and an angel none,
how many tongues

does it take to tell lies
about love?
But for now she can only wait,
passing the leaden hour

with herringbone and cross-stitch.
Later, in front of her mirror of ice
she will lift the cold carrion
like a queen’s fringed torque,

place it in the soft dip
at the base of her throat,
making visible the muted words,
that wounded song of herself.

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

Nude with Blue Cushion

Ekphrastic Poetry

Amedeo Modigliani
Nude with Blue Cushion

Jeanne Hébuterne, Modigliani’s mistress,
threw herself from a high window, on learning
of his death, while nine months pregnant.

They deepen, satiated with desire
like the filming of trout pools
by the clouding of the sun, her sloe-black
burnt-black almond eyes.

Everything begins with the skin:
soft flesh gleaming in the knowledge
of its own perfection, recalling the recent
pleasure of his hand, the current pull of the brush.

Here she is all present: her
hip, navel, thigh, utterly surrendered
to the iridescence of madder hues,
the fullness of his love.

Elongated as a languid cat
she lies: a crooked arm angling her head
against the little cushion of faded blue
reveals its damp pit of tangled hair.

Softened by hashish and hunger
she does not now concern herself with sous
or grey morning’s marketing of bread.
Jeanne maybe? Her future as yet unwritten:

Backwards, nine months with child,
through that high window.
For chaos and sweet death tonight lie drugged
with a flush of carmine, of Venetian red.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Review of 58th Venice Biennale

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Venice, that city of dreams and the inspiration for artists and writers from Turner to Italo Calvino, sees its 58th art biennale. As thousands flock to the event the gorgeous palazzi sink ever further into the lagoon, damaged by the huge commercial cruise ships that daily disgorge yet more tourists into the fragile infrastructure. A fitting image of our propensity for self-destruction in these dystopian times.

Arriving in the Giardini I found clouds of vapour enveloping the main pavilion, courtesy of the Italian artist Lara Favaretto. It’s an appropriate metaphor for this year’s event, in which narratives seem to dissolve in a white mist of nebulous noise. Curated by Ralph Rugoff of London’s Hayward Gallery, May You Live in Interesting Times sees degradation and dissonance played out around every corner. Ice caps melt, oceans are polluted, bombs are thrown and the emotions expressed frequently turn out to be those from ersatz non-humans. And if it all that gets too much there’s always dance or a touch of shamanism to take your mind off things. As the world collapses we can bop along in the Swiss Pavilion with five performers whose backwards motions generate ‘new, alternative forms of resistance and action’ or we can read the runes with a Korean female medium. If there’s nothing left to believe in we can always grasp at straws.

The long queues for Laure Provost’s installation in the French pavilion show that there’s an appetite for doom-laden imagery. Entering through an underground dug-out of piled earth, we’re invited to climb the metal staircase onto a sea-green resin floor littered with detritus and interspersed with sea-creatures made from local Murano glass. This turns out to be the prelude to a perplexing but vibrant video that starts in the banlieues of Paris and ends in Venice. A postmodern Odyssey in which migrants look longingly out to sea and sing. Dancers and acrobats do their stuff and a slithering squid climbs the steps to the pavilion.

Next door, in the British pavilion, Turner prize nominee Cathy Wilkes’ offering looks superficially similar. There’s more debris. A wooden frame covered with stretched muslin is strewn with dried flowers. A twist of silver paper, a two pence coin, an empty toilet roll and a grubby hairband – the sort of stuff found at the back of the kitchen drawer – sit around the edge. Wilkes’ work isn’t about the impending political or global disaster but evokes the Proustian echoes of her suburban childhood. Standing around the gallery, like a watchful chorus, are a collection of small, bald-headed ET figures, each with a stuck-on pregnant belly. Elsewhere disembodied arms poke from a white washing-up bowl. A reminder, no doubt, of women’s work and the Sisyphean task of endless domesticity. Yet for all the apparent feminism and poeticism of Wilkes’ installation, it never quite gets to grips with the space.

Move next door to Canada and you’ll come across a fascinating but lengthy video – videos dominate this year’s biennale and there’s simply not enough time to sit and watch them all, this is not, after all, a film festival – set in a wasteland of ice. Isuma means to contemplate in the Innuit language and is the name of the first Innuit art collective that comes together to breath new life into stories and traditions that hover on the edge of extinction. In Finland there’s yet more ice. MWC’s collective film The Killing of Čáhcerávga poses questions, among lonely snowy plains, about itinerancy, movement and borders. When you’ve had enough of the frozen north you can always wander to sunnier climes, to Brazil, where a two-channel video, Swinguerra (swing and war – oh do keep up!), pulses with the energy of a transgender, non-binary dance group clad in lycra and mini-shorts. Started as a grassroots movement, there are some excellent dancers here, but it’s more of a documentary feature than an artwork.

Over in the Korean pavilion, we’re asked to consider who writes history and decides what should be remembered through the work of three women artists – Siren Eun Young Jung, Hwayeon Ban and Jane Jin Kaisen. Jung, the winner of the Korea Art Prize 2018, shows film footage of Lee Dueng-woo who performed mainly male parts in a 1950s all-women theatre troupe, while Kaisen explores ancient female shamanistic rituals handed down through the generations. In the Danish pavilion, you’ll find one of the most affecting works (for my money) in the Giardini by the Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour. Heirloom is a stark rumination on memory, history and identity. Her two-channel, science-fiction black and white film, In Vitro, is staged in Bethlehem decades after an eco-disaster, where the dying founder of a subterranean orchard speaks with her young successor who was born underground and has never seen the city. Beautifully weaving myth and reality, Sansour explores themes of inherited trauma, exile and collective memory.

In contrast to all this time based-work, the American pavilion is a haven of calm. African-American sculptor Martin Puryear has created elegant forms that play with notions of American identity. Outside the pavilion, Swallowed Sun (Monstrance and Volute) consists of two parts. A perforated pale-wood mesh screen, like something from a cathedral, stands in front of a vast black serpentine tube inspired by the detail of a Greek column, suggesting the play between dark and light. American history and liberty are explored in A Column for Sally Hemmings with its references to the horrors of slavery. Meticulously crafted in pine and steel, Puryear’s work carries the sense of the artist’s hand that’s largely absent elsewhere.

48 War Movies by Christian Marclay

This year the number of artists in the biennale has shrunk. Those taking part each have two works, one in the Giardini and another in the Arsenale. Over in the cavernous Arsenale (Venice’s former naval yard), the dystopian vision continues. Ed Atkins installation – rows of theatrical costumes hung alongside CGI videos with a caste of emoting waxy-faced characters – is uncanny and disturbing. Though quite how this links with his gouache works of hands, feet and tarantulas in the Giardini is not immediately obvious. Elsewhere, Christian Marclay of The Clock fame has produced an uncomfortable work 48 War Movies (2019) in which war films that both assault and weary, sit one inside another in a tingling nest of rectangles.

I Have Child’s Feet by Mari Katayama

Move on to the work of the Japanese artist Mari Katayama who, born with a rare congenital disorder has had her legs amputated at the age of nine, and there’s a degree of uncomfortable ambiguity. In I Have Child’s Feet, she poses in seductive lacy underwear in a boudoir crammed with home-made cushions and fabrics, along with her small outgrown prosthetic legs (suggesting the Japanese tradition of foot binding). This might either be read as a peon to overcoming physical adversity or as a sexualised fetishization of the amputee in the manner of J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Take your pick.

For, In Your Tongue I Cannot Fit by Shilpa Gupta

Much of the work in this biennale feels glazed with a coating of political posturing but, in the Arsenale, one work (for me at least) stood out; For, In your tongue I cannot fit by Mumbai artist Shilpa Gupta’s. In a darkened space, a thicket of 100 microphones hangs above a 100 metal spikes, each of which pierces a white page of printed poetry written by a jailed poet. A single microphone plays these verses, echoed by the other 99, to create a haunting recital of loss and repression based on a poem by the 14th-century Azerbaijani poet, Nesimi. It’s an affecting, spare and quietly powerful work.

But the talk of the biennale has been the Lithuanian pavilion, which won the Golden Lion for an international presentation. On the day I went, it was pouring with rain and there was a two hour wait to get in. People were getting very angry as others tried to jump the queue in the downpour. We even managed to get the pavilion shut down for several hours when accosted by a man with an Eastern European accent who kept cursing us ‘Europeans’ and appeared to have some sort of device in his pocket. So was the wait worth it when we finally did get in? Well, the opera Sun & Sea (Marina) with its cast of 20 presented by Rugilė Barzdžuikaitė, Viava Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, set on an artificial beach, is certainly engaging. From a high balcony of an old Venetia warehouse, viewers look down on performers of all ages and sizes who loll around on the sand, eat pasta salad from Tupperware boxes, scroll through their phones and sing about climate change as seagulls screech and ice cream vans sound in the distance. The suggestion is that the end of the world may not come to end with a bang but a whimper while we’re lazing around and looking the other way. It’s an arresting piece that melds opera, theatre and installation but reading through the libretto it seemed rather weak, albeit a translation.

Perhaps the piece that best sums up the ambiguities of this year’s proceedings is not even an artwork but the rusted and torn hull of a fishing boat stationed outside the Arsenale. This was the boat that sank in the Mediterranean in April 2015 on its way from Tripoli with its migrant crew of 800. All but 27 of those on board died. The artist Christoph Büchel has installed it, without labels or comment, as a project named Barca Nostra’ (Our boat). Viewing it is an extremely uncomfortable experience. It’s hard not to imagine the panic, the cries of despair and terror of those on board as the boat went down. Placed outside one of the Arsenale cafes where people sip Aperol spritz and espresso, it illustrates not only the prevailing concerns of the art world but something of the detached insouciance and ersatz engagement posing as concern that seems to dominate this year’s biennale.

Jeffrey Daniels
Traces of Occupation

Art Catalogues

“The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.”

As Giacometti suggests, art creates a parallel universe, one that mirrors reality obliquely, rather than reflecting it directly. The serious artist makes art to discover what he or she does not quite know but somehow senses. He digs into the dark recesses of the imagination hoping to uncover what is lurking there hidden: the tangled matrix of his own emotions, the substrata of a city, the remnants of another civilisation. At its best art is a palimpsest, a many layered thing that can be enjoyed briefly as a sensual visual experience but is able, when the layers are cleared away, to provide something much deeper. It can be understood as a series of Chinese boxes that, as they are opened, interlink the present with memory, history and the passage of time. Or it can be seen as a process of mapping that, rather than charting specific locations, gives a structure to our dreams and imaginings. As suggested by Freud’s theory of the uncanny, art can reveal things that are at one and the same time both familiar, yet strange. Things which seem ordinary but provoke an aura of mystery, even anxiety.

The use of the myth of Eurydice is a clue to Jeffrey Dennis’s preoccupations. In the painting of the same name a woman can be seen, embedded in the abstract aerated patterning, descending a flight of steps and crossing a bridge. Dennis takes as his starting point the stuff of the every day. A familiar looking city street, an ordinary room. In Outside Agencies, we see, amid the abstract bubble-wrap surface of the canvas, the suggestion
of a cracked pavement. There’s also a realistic section of floor boards and another hyper-real ‘window’ in which a man can be seen entering a tunnel or an enclosed room through a wooden door. Both door and floor boards imply hidden worlds, those below and beyond the familiar. The door might lead, like that into Narnia, to another realm where time follows different rules in a place of dreams. And who knows what treasures might lurk beneath those floor boards? For as Gaston Bachelard writes in his classic work The Poetics of Space: “The house, even more than the landscape, is a psychic state, and even when reproduced as it appears from the outside, it bespeaks intimacy.”

In Traces of Occupation the canvas is filled with bits of wire and industrial tubing. If you live in London you will frequently see holes dug in the street by gas or telephone companies in order to lay pipes or fibre optic cables. Their muddy depths reveal intestinal wires and pipes trailing over crumbling Victorian architraves, knots of underground connective systems that hold the city together and mimic the neural pathways of the brain. Dennis’s paintings imply that similar synapses are paramount to our individual personalities and creativity, that they define who we are. In a small aperture on the right of the painting a woman stands on a stool. She appears to be an artist painting, highlighting the connection between thinking, making and existential investigation.

Figures appear on the edges of Jeffrey Dennis’s canvases like actors in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. In the Italian’s play their role is to demonstrate the artifice of writing, to illustrate the illusion of theatre. Here they establish something similar, reminding us that painting is an artificial construct. Both inside and outside of the work they are, at one and same time, illusionary and real, subjects and objects.

In that sense Dennis is a postmodernist. There is no hierarchy to his spaces.. Each area and element of his picture space is given equal weight. Yet in a world of fracture and cultural incoherence, of severance and loss, his implicit narratives, devoid of any preachy didacticism, reflect back to us the frailties of our contemporary lives.

When the ‘death of painting’ is still dragged out and regularly presented as a tired mantra, Dennis shows how the form can be endlessly reinvented to deal with current issues such as the complexity and disorientation of urban space, and the way

in which public transport and digital systems impact on our sensibilities, as well as being a vehicle for deeper investigations into the psyche. He also engages in a discussion about the materiality of paint, one that touches on questions as to when a painting is not a painting but a sculpture. Constantly revivified by an awareness of art history, coupled with influences from film, TV and everyday metropolitan life, he is not afraid of narrative, which he uses in his own unique way to explore the microcosm within the macrocosm and, by so doing, create his own unique universe.

London, April 2019

Download PDF of catalogue

Being Jew-ish in these febrile times


A response to the BBC’s Panorama programme and the Labour party crisis

I am Jew –ish. The ish is important. For although I had four Jewish grandparents and Hitler would certainly have turned me into toast if I’d been born a few years earlier over the wrong side of the Channel, my upbringing was more Thelwell Pony Club and Surrey Young Conservative tennis parties (apologies I was only 13!) than north London Bar Mitzvahs. I even went to a private Christian Science girls’ school, where the only other Jewish girl refused to say the Lord’s Prayer in assembly and I wondered if I should too. Our days were spent riding our bikes in the Surrey lanes and listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones. And my mother – a bit of a snob – was more interested in gardening and horses than Golders Green glitz. My Jewishness then – such as it was – amounted to having a grandmother who’d arrive on the Greenline bus from London for Sunday lunch with a bag of gefilte fish. As a child I never attended a synagogue or a Friday night Shabbat. Didn’t even know what they were and felt very alien the first time I did.

So most of my life I’ve not thought about being Jewish. As a teenager in the 1960s I did rather fancy going to pick grapes on a kibbutz (it was a fashionable thing to do in those days when Israel was seen as a beacon of social democracy in a sea of despotism) because you were likely to meet arty boys. But that’s about it. Since then I’ve gone on marches protesting about the current Israeli government’s appalling alt-right behaviour towards the Palestinians. Injustice is, after all, injustice.

But suddenly I’m afraid. Aware of my Jewishness in a way I’ve never been before.

The Panorama programme on antisemitism brought it home. But what’s even more disconcerting is the number of people, good people, intelligent people, who are dissing the programme, claiming  poor research, a Corbyn smear tactic, BBC bias etc, rather than looking at the unpalatable truths that were exposed. These are the same people, I can’t help feeling who, if the programme had been about institutional racism against black police officers, would (rightly) be applauding it. Most shocking was the revelation of the  belittling abuse that many Jewish MPs put up with for so long because they loved the Labour party and hoped it would change.

In these febrile political times Jews are like canaries down a coal mine. The first to smell the whiff of something nasty in the woodshed as our society, daily, becomes ever more polarised  and half-truths and fake new abound. We have self-serving liars at the top of both the British and American governments and everyone is looking for someone else to blame. But what seems to have changed is there seems, increasingly, to be a generalised indifference to antisemitism among those who’d claim to have been anti-racist all their lives. The old tropes are back about cabals, power and money, world domination – Soros and the Rothchild’s etc. But put up a post on Facebook and the only people to respond are those with Jewish connections. To most this is a none issue. Made up, a smear, over-played by those pesky Jews. After all most Jews are white, middle class –ish. What have they got to bleat about when any card carrying metropolitan lefty should be worrying about the Gaza strip?

But it is not either or. Most educated Jews I know abhor the behaviour of the Israeli government, just as my American friends abhor the behaviour of Trump. But tolerating antisemitism seems to have become acceptable. The desire in the Labour party – the natural home of British Jews – to reinstate the likes of Chris Williamson is deeply distressing. And yes, Jews can be antisemitic, just as gay men can be homophobic or women can refer to each other as bitches. These are the Jews supported by Corbyn’s cadre. The rest are the wrong sort of Jews. Untruthful, slippery, neurotic, making a fuss. Such phrases have echoes of those bandied around in 1930s Germany. And you’ll remember that didn’t turn out well.

Peter Joyce
Digging Deep

Art Catalogues

acrylic on wood panel
40.5 x 44cm

It’s only about two hours from London to Peter Joyce’s home near Bouin in the marshlands of La Vendée, but it might be another world. Joyce first came to this region of Pays de la Loire on holiday and fell in love. Born in Dorset, and still with a house there he, and his wife Jo, moved permanently to this remote location more than a decade ago, seeking a place where he could work without interruption, as well as be close to nature. Though, initially finding it rather lonely and intimidating, Jo took a bit of persuading to make it their full time home.

As we drive from Nantes airport, the landscape becomes more and more deserted. Once covered by sea, the area is flat and open with huge vistas and expansive skies. There are few trees and even fewer people. You can drive for miles without seeing a living soul. Just the occasional farmer or fisherman, an odd cyclist or birdwatcher. The ever-changing light rolls in from the Atlantic, dramatic and mercurial. With its boundless horizons, it’s a mysterious and existential place. A land time forgot.

And then there’s the abundant wild life. I saw a couple of white egrets, a heron and a short-eared owl in the few days I was there. But I might also have seen kites and spoonbills or even storks at the right time of year. The extensive wetlands provide a pit stop for spring and autumn migrant birds travelling to and from Africa, and a winter quarter for many other species. Huge flocks of greylag and brent geese, black-tailed godwits and dunlin swirl in their hundreds of thousands between their high tide roosts and the food-rich mud- flats. If you’re lucky you might catch sight of a brown hare leaping through the fields. Red deer and roe deer, as well as wild boar, are common. Beaver-like coypu can be glimpsed swimming in the creeks and waterways. While, in summer, asp vipers, the regions only venomous snake, bask on sunny banks.

It was the Romans who first built the dykes here, some 2000 years ago, and created the salt marshes. Benedictine monks then extended the network of pits and canals and turned the local production of sea salt into a thriving industry. The area remained the largest salt producer in Europe until the 18th century. With the decline in salt production the salt marshes were reclaimed for agricultural use. As some areas were below sea level, a network of canals (étiers) and locks were put in place to send the salty water back out towards the sea and replace it with rain water. Now there are both salt water and fresh water marshes. A lattice of creeks and inlets is home to small boats, half-rotted wooden slipways and Chinese-style counterbalanced fishing nets. But mostly the land is left to its own devices, the rough, unkempt fields dotted with isolated cows and horses like children’s farmyard toys.

So what has all this got to do with painting? Well everywhere you look there are sites to assault the eye of the visually sensitive. If you were to go up in a small biplane – as the Cornish landscape painter Peter Lanyon might have chosen to do – you’d discover an area patchworked with pools and salt pans. The colours are muted – soft greens and browns – with the occasional flash of blue. Wooden posts, bleached by the wind and tides, cast fishbone-shadows on the wet sands. Pink and blue bailer twine flaps on barbed wire fences, suggesting scribbles of bright paint set against the green turf. Telegraph poles (soon to be placed underground) provide vertical reference points – like thin pencil lines – against the flat horizon. While rusted mesh netting, left by oyster catchers, offers the visual grammar for a potential abstract painting. This is a landscape that feeds the aesthetic imagination. One well suited to the sensibilities of an abstract painter and a dedicated naturalist.

Peter and Jo’s house is full of objects lovingly collected at brocante sales and on their walks. There’s a zen-like precision to their displays of found objects, a minimalist respect for artefacts carefully set in space. Whilst their garden is home to a clutch of pet hens and their accompanying cockerels, as well as an anarchic gaggle of guinea fowl with whom Peter seems to have a uniquely special bond. But it’s the studio, an old converted oyster shed, surrounded by disused basins where the molluscs were grown when brought up from the sea, that is the powerhouse. Empty for six years, it’s here that Jo now makes Peter’s frames in one half of the building, while he paints in the other.

Before going to France I’d not met Peter Joyce. From his work I’d expected someone older, not a man in his 50s. It’s as if by choosing to live in this forgotten region that he’s made a deliberate decision to turn his back on the razzmatazz of the urban artworld with its fashionable postmodern discourses and place himself squarely in the company of British Modern painters of an earlier generation, many of whom took themselves off to the, then, remote St. Ives looking for similar things to Peter: untamed landscape, peace to work and intense, changing light. Like Lanyon and Patrick Heron, Joyce alludes to both real and invented landscapes, bringing to his work a subtle sense of place and the sort of understanding that can only be achieved through total immersion and habitual looking.

Walking round his studio we discuss how he begins a painting. Although he takes copious photographs he never translates these literally. Rather they form part of a mental reference library. He starts by laying marks and lines of paint on bare canvas. “Once you put two colours down in a painterly space, one stands in front of the other and you have a tension”, he explains. “Then I go through three weeks of nonsense while I try to avoid being seduced by those first marks. Often I hang large works on the bedroom wall – it’s the only wall big enough – and live with them for a few weeks while trying to feel what direction they should take. It’s then that I discover a point of departure and can dive back in. At the end of each day I photograph what I’ve done to chart a work’s process”.

Joyce is a painter of landscapes but they’re landscapes of the imagination, arrived at through perpetual looking, rather than direct representations of the actual world. The painter to whom he is closest is Prunella Clough. Her subtle translations of the everyday – the detritus and incidentals caught out of the corner of the eye – are mirrored in Joyce’s work. Like hers, his colours are muted and rooted in nature. Shades and tones that might be seen on his frequent walks. The silvery greens of lichen on a gate. The ochre or verdigris of a rusty fence. Never simply decorative, they could be pigments dug straight from the earth. This chthonic connection explains his passion for collecting ceramics, themselves made from that most basic of elements, clay. He and Jo have a fine collection.

Looking was a habit formed early in his Dorset childhood. He describes it as something of an Enid Blyton existence, one where he spent a lot of time alone, making maps, looking at butterflies and insects. Later, at art school in Bournemouth, he moved from the design studios to study painting. It was, he says, as if someone had turned on a light. His first paintings were based on tight patterned grids. He didn’t, he admits, at the time, even know the significance of the grid within modernist painting. It simply allowed him a way to exert control over the canvas, provided a system he could then subvert with more expressive painting. He has, he says, never done the copying thing. But being expressive didn’t come naturally from a graphic design background. Like a child he had to counter the feeling that he needed to be neat, that he shouldn’t ‘go over the edges’. Then he discovered the American Abstract Expressionists and found the ambition and scale of their work jaw-dropping, though he never felt he had to emulate them. His own sensibility is more akin to painters such as Lanyon, Hilton and Heron. And his light is essentially northern, his colours English. There’s an air of nostalgia about his work. Something of the Festival of Britain and the wonderful Shell Guides that started in June 1934 with Betjeman’s Cornwall, and continued until 1984. His colours are reminiscent of those to be found in early John Pipers or Paul Nash. Eric Ravillious is another artist who comes to mind. Yet his work is never a pastiche, rather a revisiting and a reinvention.

The process of mapping, first explored as a young boy, is suggested in a number of Joyce’s adult paintings. It’s both a psychological and metaphorical device, as well as a way of attempting to describe the experience of being in the actual, physical landscape. Being a cartographer is to be an explorer in the unknown land of the creative imagination. In the final decade of the nineteenth century Freud articulated the first ideas about the unconscious using words derived from topos (place), implying a sense both of location and investigation. Like Freud, Joyce has an interest in archaeology. The process of digging deep though ancient layers, of uncovering what is hidden, implies the search for new ways of seeing. Joyce’s paintings are about quiet discoveries. A painting such as Traverse 2018, with its drawn white lines suggests a memory of the White Horse of Uffington or other ancient white horses incised into the English landscape. Many of his paintings feel as though they are searching for some atavistic historical essence.

In Deep 2018, a blue ribbon-like line connects ‘vessels’ or ‘baskets’ that might have been suggested by the many fishing nets seen locally in the small harbours and creeks when Joyce is out on his daily walks. There’s the sense of something being plunged into hidden depths, yet also of being caught and contained. While in Dimpsey 2018 (a vernacular word from the southwest of England meaning dusk) there’s an implied division between two states: the conscious and unconscious mind, emotion and reason, dark and light, even land and water. These are not landscapes that you can actually inhabit or visit but places discovered from trawling through a poetic imagination. In Spoor 2018 the edge of the collaged piece of hessian implies a division between wet and dry as we look down through the veils of paint.

In Les Prés 2018, a jut of what might be land is seen from above. Triangular and rectangular shapes overlap implying the history of alluvial layers and possible archaeological sites; long barrows hidden beneath fields. The work reveals both what we know about a landscape and what we don’t know. What is hidden. Built up in layers and veils of colour it also maps the history of the painting’s making. While Wind Whistle 2018 has many of the similar aerial qualities to Les Prés, its wedge-shaped image suggests an artefact found in some ancient burial mound: a bone, or stone-age implement.

In Red Streamers 2018 with its layers of transparent, scraped back paint, and Grey Lines 2018 there’s a feeling of looking down from above (a quality that pays tribute to Peter Lanyon) into pools of water, of seeing tones and shapes that shift and blur with the current’s movement. Nothing feels static. There’s a sense that what we’re looking at is fluid, constantly changing. Not so much a fixed statement but a momentary glimpse of something in flux. As Heraclitus said, when exploring ideas of time: it’s not possible to step into the same river twice. Joyce’s paintings capture a moment. A flash of sunlight on water, the wind rippling across the surface of a pond, grass swaying in the sand dunes. Moments that are fleeting, then gone.

In other paintings it’s not so much physical locations or topographies that have inspired Joyce but times of day, changes in light and, what the poet Wordsworth called, “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. In Thicket, 2018, the mood is sombre, like the night closing in. The swirling veil of darkness that appears to be covering the touches of yellow speaks of those twin points in the life of any painter or writer, doubt and depression. While Blue Flash, 2018 suggests not only a dramatic streak of lightening across a wide sky but a burst of emotional energy like a clash of cymbals or roll of drums. It is in direct counterpoint to the stillness and introversion of Thicket, the buoyant side of creativity. Never static there’s a constant sense of movement in these works. Things shift and change like the weather in this open landscape. Looking at this series of paintings is like listening to the flow of a piece of music with its diminuendos and crescendos, its moments of stillness and electric dynamism.

There’s a nostalgia to these paintings but it’s never mawkish or sentimental. Joyce’s acute observation and eye for detail are the stuff of Proustian memories. The stone, the bit of wire, the wooden post act as catalysts into his creative imagination. He admits he would rather go back into the past than forward into the future. That when making a painting he discovers his place in the natural world, in the historic scheme of things. It’s often only after a work is finished that he realises what it is about.

He works tremendously hard. Sometimes he’ll start on a raw canvas. Other times on a gesso ground. Colour is applied randomly and the paint is always acrylic. If the marks become too representational he’ll pull them back and scrape them down. He likes to work on different scales so that he’s not repeating himself. The difference in the size of a canvas forces change, allows him to resist the recurrence of particular motifs. He is, he insists, not painting for anyone but himself, to resolve visual problems and needs to shut out the world in order to discover the paintings he wants to make. Nothing is pre-planned or preconceived.

I ask what he reads and he admits he never reads novels but rather art catalogues, stuff on wildlife and, more recently, books on architecture, a growing interest. He may or may not, he says, listen to music whilst working. Often alternative difficult stuff that breaks accepted formats.

Like the great poet of observation, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Joyce looks for the essential essence of things. What Hopkins called ‘inscape’. As the poet-priest wrote in his great poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells…

The routine that Peter Joyce has created in these forgotten marshlands of France attempts to do just that. It is a singular, almost monastic existence, in a hectic, frenzied world. One of painting, walking, looking and just being. He and Jo have simplified life down to its essential components. The uniqueness of the physical world – both in its visual appearance and it’s inner essence – are the enduring subjects of Peter’s work. The light and the dark. History and the transitory moment. The past and now.

Download PDF of catalogue

Crows over the Wheatfield

Ekphrastic Poetry

After Van Gogh

Vincent Van Gogh
Wheatfield with Crows

I have done with the sun.
Here on these northern
plains wheat fields become
waves, beneath leaden skies,
shadows black of dogs
run through the swaying crop.
Long ago I left another country
where the sulphurous sun
hung low over the potato fields.
They called me a madman
because I wanted to be a
true Christian. In Arles
I painted blossom pure as
drifts of Japanese snow.
Now it is upon me again,
this clamped crown.
I who melted gold into
an alchemy of sunflowers
burnished as a lion’s mane.
Misfortune must be good
for something…
Across the wheat field crows
wheel in a ragged requiem
towards me. My vision
shifts and slides. Three paths
diverge – leading somewhere
going nowhere. My eyes
burn. I cannot hold on.

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

The Sower

Ekphrastic Poetry

After Jean-François Millet

Jean-François Millet
The Sower

Thighs braced against the curve
of field, puddled armpits
rancid in the freezing wind
he strides

diagonally down the slope
beneath a weight of sky.
From behind the ridge
the low sun catches

his left cheek, his hand, waist,
the hinge of his aching knee,
the linen-gaitered feet turning
to hooves of mud.

An outstretched arms swings
then dips and dips again into
the coarse grain sack slung
across his hunched shoulder

where the halter rasps the nape
of his raw neck. Bit beetroot hands
scatter seed on stony ground,
their moons all ragged and black.

A mercury sky. And his
scissoring bulk fills the frame
forming a large cross with the axis
of oxen dragging their heavy harrow

into the lavender, the rose-flushed dusk,
up at the picture’s edge.
Beneath his slouched felt hat
his shrouded face foretells

approaching winter,
the brooding dark. Exhaustion,
waste. Memory of famine runs
atavistic through his veins.

In a ditch a hare pricks
its ears to the wind. A black
scribble of crows writes
hunger across the sky.

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

Portrait of Women in a Blue Tunic

Ekphrastic Poetry

Roman Period c.AD 160-70

Panel painting of a woman in a blue mantle
Roman period

They gave her a painted face to welcome death,
a nip-and-tuck in encaustic fit for eternity:
hieratic blush of madder and white lead,
coiled hair in warm Japan.

Behind the sophistication of coifed curls,
those earstuds of malachite and pearls,
the plaque of carnelian in the dip of her throat,
she stares out full of quiet restraint,

as though she had reigned something wounded in.
No meticulous archaeology discovered her,
just the illegal grubbings
of Theodar Graf, antiquities dealer

with an instinct for a kill,
rifling the hot sands of Fauym and er-Rubayat,
dreaming at night of pale Victorian girls.
I am pleased that he found her.

I’ve been carrying around this museum postcard
for days, struggling to hold her olive-black gaze
across two millennia, trying to interpret
the hieroglyphs of death’s silent grammar,

as if she’d simply slipped –
hair shining in the lamplight –
through a gap in the impermanence of things
to call me away from this visible skin.

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

Nude in Bathtub

Ekphrastic Poetry

After Bonnard

Pierre Bonnard
Nude in Bathtub

Between the edge of the afternoon
and dusk, between the bath’s white
rim and the band of apricot light,
she bathed, each day, as if dreaming.

From the doorway he noted
her right foot hooked for balance
beneath the enamel lip, body
and water all one in a miasma

of mist, a haze of lavender blue.
Such intimacy. A woman, two walls,
a chequered floor, the small
curled dog basking in a pool

of sun reflected from the tiles
above the bath. Outside
the throbbing heat. So many times
he has drawn her, caught the obsessive

soaping of her small breasts,
compressed the crouched frame into
his picture space, the nervy movements
that hemmed in his life.

The house exudes her still
breathes her from each sunlit corner,
secrets her lingering smell
from shelves of rosewood armoires,

and the folded silk chemises
he doesn’t have the heart to touch.
And from the landing, his memory tricks,
as through the open door the smudged

floor glistens with silvered tracks,
her watered footprints to and from
the tub where she floats in almond oil
deep in her sarcophagus of light.

From Ghost Station
Published by saltpublishing 2004

I Carve to the Beat of the Heart

Ekphrastic Poetry

After Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth

From her high window
an arc of blue
almost Aegean
where white gulls circle
and mew against
a canvas of Cornish light.

Below an oasis of shadows
palms and mirroring pools,
a garden
where sculptures grow like trees;

an ochre jacket, overalls stiff
with dust, still expectant
behind the greenhouse door
mallet, chisel, drill,
the paraphernalia of a mason’s art
seem only momentarily set aside.

On her bench a block of stone
white, unhewn, waits
in perpetuity for her hands

In the silence
her heartbeat,
the punctured cry of gulls

Nude with Blue Cushion

Jeanne Hébuterne, Modigliani’s mistress, committed
suicide on his death, while nine months pregnant, by
throwing herself from a window

They deepen, satiated with desire,
like the filming of trout pools
by the clouding of the sun, her sloe-black
burnt-black almond eyes.

Everything begins with the skin:
soft flesh gleaming in the knowledge
of its own perfection, recalling the recent
pleasure of his hand, the current pull of the brush.

Here she is all present, her
hip, navel, thigh utterly surrendered
to the iridescence of madder hues,
the fullness of his love.

Elongated as a languid cat
she lies, a crooked arm angling her head
against the little cushion of faded blue
reveals its damp pit of tangled hair.

Softened by hashish and hunger
she does not now concern herself with sous
or grey morning’s marketing of bread.
Jeanne maybe? Her future as yet unwritten:

backwards, nine months with child,
through that high window.
For chaos and sweet death tonight lie drugged
with a flush of carmine, of Venetian red.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Experiment with an Air Pump

Ekphrastic Poetry

After Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734-97

Joseph Wright of Derby
Experiment with the Air Pump

That night we gathered,
the white moon peeped between the skirted clouds
flooding the high-panelled room in eerie light.
Eight of us, at the great scientist Dr Wilke’s house,
a man with eyes so deep and brows so fierce,
in copper damask dressing-gown, he frightened men,
and that shock of wiry hair!

On the table such weird contraptions as I’d never seen:
an air pump made of gleaming brass, strange tubes
and liquids that gave a sulphurous glow.
I cried and hid my eyes, clasped Kitty close,
At six far braver and more curious than I.
Still I can feel the callused grip of Joshua’s
hand in comfort on my thin shoulder.

Science: an experiment, he explained,
to see if the pretty bird could fill
its gasping lungs and beat its failing wings
without the magic stuff he called oxygen.
I could not bear the thud of it snowy breast,
the rattle of its brittle beak, the scratch
of tiny claws, as it circled and circled
expiring from want of air.

Such power of life and death he had
that strange alchemical man.
I did not dare cry out ‘stop’ to save
the frightened thing.

Later, when they were finished, I asked
to hold the soft limp body, sat by
the guttering candle on the sill
and tried to close its beady current eyes
as a lick of scarlet dribbled from its beak
and felt the little bones
light as air, in my warm cupped hands.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

The Beach at Trouville

Ekphrastic Poetry

After Eugène Louis Boudin, 1824-98

Eugène Louis Boudin
Beach at Trouville

The wind is up:
tossing the gritty sand
into the stamping horses’ eyes.

Dogs circle and yelp
across the wide wet sands
snapping at bladderwrack

as ribbons of her straw hat
whip in the breeze.
She stands a little apart

From the beaux and belles
of Trouville, pretty
under ruffled parasols

their satin hooped crinolines
parachuted by the salty gusts.
For soon this giggling group

will tire of ‘oohs and aahs’
and leave this afternoon’s blowy
mise-en-scène for Monsieur Henri’s

fine cognac, chocolat or café au lait
and she will gather up her loneliness
and black crêpe skirts in handfuls above

the knee, to search the shoreline
for razor shells and tiny crabs hidden
in pools between the damp worm casts

while hissing breakers
roll and slip, spattering her wind-
burnt skin with spots of tangy spray.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Vermeer’s Kitchen Maid

Ekphrastic Poetry

An Easter light, watery as whey, spills
from the high window, catches the rim
of her linen cap, its white gulls’ wings,
the coarse cross-stitch of yellow bodice
against her apron’s blue, the sleeves
rolled to elbows against curdy skin.

Already she has raked ashes, broken bread
for him from the willow basket with her big
raw hands. And in the oyster-grey morning
while the house sleeps, Vermeer’s woman
pours warm milk from terracotta
jug to crock in silent communion.

She is mistress here,
moving with slow deliberation through
these daily tasks: her quiet meditations.
On the table beside her is spread
a Delft flagon of ale, a cloth; on the wall
a wicker creel, new polished brass.

Did he love her? Who can say?
As in the chill dawn he lifts his brush
to catch that creamy curve of brow
the shadow on her lowered lid where
sable tufts stroke, soft as her cool
fingers on fresh laundered ecru.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

The Convalescent

Ekphrastic Poetry

After Gwen John

Gwen John
The Convalescent

They have changed the white cloth, soaking
out the dark stain with salt. I hardly
remember days that were different, filled
with the sweet diversions of work.
Time is measure now
in poultices and lint. Below my window
the same hens scratch the same dirt,
borage and shallots bloom in the herb garden.

Hours stretch faded, formless
and I inhabit the waste lands
behind my eyelids where there is colour
for my body is white, my limbs thin
as saplings, my hair has lost its walnut sheen.
Once the bodice of this calico dress
clung tight across my apple breasts,
now it hangs like a nun’s blue folds.

All morning I sit by the window
read, write letters to my cousin;
outside children’s voices shatter
holes in a duck-egg sky. Lilac shadows,
long and dark as a bruise, stretch
across my room, camphor and crushed
violets fill the throttled air,
on my table a pink cup and saucer of camomile tea.

From behind drawn blinds sunlight needle-
points the satin gloom. My skin is grey
as old pastry. In my wicker chair,
with the down cushion plumped to the small
of my back, I dream of the impossible sun
high over courtyard and dovecot
illuminating the frailties of small lives,
baking the cracked roofs of barns.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

The Painter’s Family

Ekphrastic Poetry

After de Chirico

Giorgio de Chirico
The Painter’s Family

She is edgy today
her nerves all jangled,
synapses stretched taught as hamstrings.

The baby’s mouth opens again
a grey mollusc, the blue bruise
of colic staining its lips.

The cracks are showing.
She is becoming as crazed as the glaze
on her grandmother’s plates.

She cannot carry on like this.
Her lap is too shallow, her arms
not long enough to hoop up the excess.

For he is busy. He has work to do
renewing the chipped mortar
in a wall of angles and silence.

Mute and deaf they have bound
themselves with winding sheets, filleted
down to white bone old fleshless words.

Now she must stuff the gaps, smooth
the pollyfilla’d crevices in her face.
Vinegar and brown paper will no longer do.

In the orange evening dust
she cannot open her crammed mouth
must drown her thin cries, her dim bleatings.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Remembering Laugharne

Ekphrastic Poetry

In memory of Dylan Thomas

How odd, after all these years
to return to the boathouse as the dawn mist
rises ghostly as a lapwing’s heart-cry

to lure daybreak from the grieving dark,
and catch the ghost of you out on the mudflats
in your old tweed coat

whelking for poems:
my beast, my angel, my fat little fool.
On these tidal reaches

Where Taf, Towy and Gwendraweth
meet and boats lie beach in
a silver throat of brackish water,

I danced barefoot, gathered cockles
In the hem of my long skirt, salty vulvae
to boil in a broth for you on the black iron stove.

At night, in our pink bedroom
you sucked me clean amid a musk
of winter apples, spilt bottles of ale.

Rats scuttled in the privy. Bath-time
I’d lay out dolly mixture in the soap tray,
scrub your plump baby’s back.

Unruly children we clung together
in an adult world. But with the rage,
the drinking, an innocence was lost.

That morning I found you dying across
an ocean, they strapped me in a straightjacket
for smashing the hospital crucifix.

Still I see your curly head against
the regulation pillow. Those little
fin-like hands curled on the white sheet.

From Swimming to Albania
Salmon Press Ireland 2021

Woman Bathing in a Stream

Ekphrastic Poetry

After Rembrandt

Woman Bathing in a Stream

Some days Bathsheba or Danaë,
voluptuous and bangled
on her cushioned ottoman. But this evening,
her linen chemise crumpled high
against wide hips, the loose
sleeves carelessly rolled, she paddles
the stream, simply herself, Hendrickye.

Florentine brocade, mulberry damask
from Uzbekistan, she leaves the tumbled rugs,
steps in the pool, her body warm, the smell
of him lingering still between her thighs.
His eyes absorb the creamy solid flesh,
those familiar dimpled knees. He makes
no judgment on her nakedness.

Times she has posed for him;
out of love, not an interest in his art,
just as each morning she pours his ale,
chops pickled herrings, slices coarse black bread,
nights warmed his bed since Saskia died.
Nurse to small Titus, what difference,
opening her ample arms to him as well.
No matter others find him strange.

Soon dusk will turn to night, wood-smoke
and a Gouda moon hang over the gabled house.
She turns to her mirror, combs out her hair,
prepares for sleep, sees other selves reflected
in her glass: the sandy freckled skin. Let him
wrap her in chiaroscuro if he must – grey morning
will find him seeking the warmth of her bed.

From Everything Begins with the Skin
Published by Enitharmon 1995

Frank Bowling
In The Presence Of A Significant Painter

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

It’s rare to walk into an exhibition and be bowled over (forgive the pun). To encounter work that touches the heart as well as the mind in these insouciant times. Frank Bowling’s exhibition at Tate Britain is one such rare show, reminding us of what painting can do. We can only wonder why it has taken six decades for him to have this sort of recognition. That he is black, that his primary influences came first from Francis Bacon and then from America abstract expressionism, at a time when the art world was shunning depth and existential exploration in favour of surface and irony, must have something to do with it. His acceptance at the Royal College of Art in 1959, a year after the Notting Hill race riots, is not only a testament to his talent but a reminder of the tone of the times in which he found himself an art student.

Abstract Expression has had a bad press for the last few decades. It’s been seen as the art of white males busy climbing on pedestals.

From the moment you walk into the Tate show, you know you are in the presence of a significant painter. Born in 1934 in Bartica, British Guiana (now Guyana) Frank Bowling grew up in New Amsterdam where his mother ran a successful store. At the age of 19, he moved to London to become a poet. A period in the Royal Air Force as a regular serviceman was to have a big impact. It was there he met the artist Keith Critchlow who introduced him to the London art scene. After studying at Regent Street Polytechnic and Chelsea School of Art, he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College where he studied alongside David Hockney, Patrick Caufield and Pauline Boty. Initially rejected because he didn’t have a background in life drawing, he was rescued and funded by the head of painting, Carel Weight. But where Bowling’s contemporaries turned to Pop art, he embraced the poetry of abstract expressionism. A move to New York in 1966 was seminal. His influences became Rothko and Barnet Newman, his concerns history and the exploration of space and time, rather than the iconography and irony of the everyday.

Frank Bowling: Installation Tate Britain, Level 2 Gallery

Bowling has said he dislikes the fact the Tate show is chronological but for those who are not that familiar with his output it makes sense. Bowling’s early work is filled with figurative elements. In Birthday 1962, a contorted figure lies on a bed, framed by an open window. The raw isolation, the movement of paint and muscular tension all suggest the influence of Francis Bacon. In Big Bird 1964, we can see the push-pull between the gestural and the abstract. The grid-like background, suggestive of Piet Mondrian on whom he wrote his graduation thesis, creates a formal tension with the violent Bacon-like movement of the wounded birds.
Move to Middle Passage and this large painting, with its melting sunset reds and yellows overlaying bilious greens – the colours of Guyana’s flag – is a reminder of the tragic journeys Europeans forced millions of enslaved Africans to take across the Atlantic. The repeated screen prints of his mother and children are virtually submerged by the fiery colours, suggesting JMW Turner’s 1840 Slave Ship, originally titled Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying- Typhoon Coming On. The veils of paint and use abstraction provide a way to speak of the unspeakable. In 1971 he produced the extraordinary Polish Rebecca, one of six paintings presented at the Witney Museum of American Art show that year, which refers to the Polish heritage of Ad Reinhardt’s wife. With its loose representation of the continental shapes of Africa and Europe, it makes poignant reference to both Jewish and African diasporas.

Around 1973 Bowling started to pour paint onto his canvases as a response to Clement Greenberg’s stance on formalism. This spilling resulted in works such as Tony’s Anvil 1975, dedicated to the late sculptor Tony Caro and the lush Ziff of 1974. Joyful and less angsty than Pollock, they’re a celebration of the texture, sensuality and possibilities of paint. His use of colour is quite simply gorgeous, perhaps almost too gorgeous for modern tastes. The pinks and purples of Devil’s Sole 1980 and Bartica Bressary are like Rothko’s Seagram murals upped a notch to let in more light, life and pleasure. Yet an interest in the existential, infinity and space are there too, especially in the muted surface of Vitacress 1981, with its suggestion of galaxies, distant planets and dark voids.

Frank Bowling: Installation Tate Britain, Level 2 Gallery

In Great Thames IV 1988-9 the canvas is covered in gloopy acrylic gel, paint and foam that shimmers like the accumulated debris gathered on the surface the great river. Found objects – lighters, bottle tops, bits of his grandson’s girlfriend’s dress – litter these light-filled paintings that pay homage not only to Gainsborough and John Constable but also to Turner and Monet. This magpie approach implies generosity and inclusivity. Everything, Bowling seems to be saying, as if he were the Walt Whitman [1] of paint, is of value if only we can see it.

Abstract Expression has had a bad press for the last few decades. It’s been seen as the art of white males busy climbing on pedestals. Bowling has rescued it from their clutches, bringing to it his unique voice, melding debates on modernist practice with the vibrancy and freshness of his Guyanan background. Thus turning it from an essentially European movement into a global one.

At 85 he is increasingly frail. He orchestrates his bevy of helpers, including his grandson, from a chair in the middle of the room like a conductor, directing the action with his keen eye and his laser pointer. In a world obsessed with youth, too many significant artists tend to be overlooked in their middle years. Some continue in obscurity, but for others, advanced age gives a fresh chance for visibility. When she was in her 90s, a callow young journalist asked Louise Bourgeois what it was like to become famous so late in life. ‘I have’, she answered acerbically, ‘been here all along’.

Frank Bowling has also ‘been here all along’, painting his gorgeous, intelligent light-filled paintings. It‘s just we have been too blind, to distracted by irony and kitsch until now, to give them their due. Luckily recognition has come in his lifetime. It is justly deserved.

Words: Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2019 Photos Courtesy Tate Britain
Frank Bowling Tate Britain 31 May – 26 August 2019

Cathy Wilkes
Resurrecting The Forgotten British Pavilion
Venice Biennale

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

May you live in interesting times is the overarching theme of this year’s Biennale. Dystopia and dissonance are everywhere played out in the themes of climate change and post-human CGI that take us to some dark places. This 2019 Biennale could well be the last when Great Britain (as we are still called in the Biennale catalogue) is a part of Europe. So the choice for this year’s Pavilion being a Northern Irish artist, who lives in Scotland, is interesting. Working across the media of sculpture, painting and installation Cathy Wilkes was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2008, won the inaugural Maria Lassnig Prize in 2017 and has already represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2005.

At her best Wilkes brings a nostalgic resonance to the ephemera she appropriates from daily life.

Cathy Wilkes – British Pavilion Venice

In contrast to the big political statements of many of the other pavilions, she has stuck with determinedly autobiographical themes. There is no mention of Brexit, of global warming or the rise of the far right. Instead, using the most fragile of materials, she returns to that creative well-spring, which has fed artists and writers from Louise Bourgeois to Proust, childhood. Her uncanny installations evoke places of loss transformed through the prism of memory. Often they are occupied by beings of unspecified age or gender.

Constructed with ‘non-art’ materials, in the tradition of arte povera, her sculptures are distinctive and personal. In the first gallery, the viewer is confronted by a wooden frame covered in thin white muslin. Placed on and around this are tiny objects: a dried grasshopper, a twist of silver paper, a two pence coin, an empty toilet roll, and a grubby hair band. This is the sort of detritus found when cleaning out the kitchen drawer. The discards of the domestic, the things we forget. Strewn over the muslin are sprigs of dried flowers and grasses that conjure Ophelia’s offerings of rue and daisies to Hamlet, “withered all when my father died.” Small tokens of memento mori not, here, for a lost father but for a past self. Also surrounding this empty muslin tomb are several enigmatic figures who, with their bald-baby ET heads and clip-on pregnant stomachs, appear like a chorus of detached, yet observant witnesses.

Cathy Wilkes – British Pavilion Venice

Elsewhere a pair of amputated arms clutch a dirty white towel. They might be mopping up a muddy kitchen floor after a stream of children, or the dog has just marched in from the rain. Another arm pokes from a cheap washing up bowl. In its hand is a well-used Brillo pad. This mirrors the daily ritual and oppression of women’s work, creating a reflection of the unsung actions that make up domestic life. A vintage green dress sits on a tailor’s dummy in the centre of the gallery covered in small photos. They show a child in a handmade knitted hat sipping soup. The same image appears on the wall opposite, a homage perhaps, to the relentless nurturing of the feminine.

Throughout the pavilion, the props and ephemera of suburban life: cheap crystal jugs and bowls, flowered crockery and grubby net curtains, a broken sheet of glass reminiscent of the kind to be found in many a modest suburban front door, have been decontextualised and used to invoke the melancholy of nostalgia. The past, this work seems to imply is, indeed, another country where they do things differently.

Wilkes own statements concerning her practice are somewhat gnomic. She’s said that “I solemnise and dignify the ghosts of interference which proceed from their origin and whip themselves up before me. I observe, they nucleate and propagate. If I could disappear, how fluid, how graceful and unending, how undisturbed and unpredictable would be the changing patterns thereabout.”

Cathy Wilkes – British Pavilion Venice

I’d very much hoped to interview her as her subject matter is close to my own heart as a poet, but she does not give interviews. This is a pity. For exploring the thought processes of an artist through mutual dialogue can often provide a deeper understanding of their practice. I did, however, manage to catch up with Emma Dexter, Director of Visual Arts at British Council for a quick word in a quiet spot behind the pavilion. Did she, I wondered, feel that the sense of personal loss implicit in Wilkes’ work could be read as a wider metaphor for the national losses of Brexit? In response, she insisted, the British Council’s role was not political and that Wilkes was chosen by a team of curators solely for ‘the urgency of the work’. Her elected mutism could, she suggested, be considered as an extension of her ‘non-hierarchical’ practice, in which she is concerned with ‘the erasure of information’. ‘There is,’ she added’, a certain musical quality in the different registers of her found objects’.

At her best Wilkes brings a nostalgic resonance to the ephemera she appropriates from daily life, giving voice to what has been discarded and ignored. In her hands, the Brillo pad becomes a madeleine that resurrects the forgotten, and half-remembered. In contrast, the paintings included here seem unnecessary and a bit laboured. This is a mixed show. There are, indeed, some quiet, reflective, poetic moments but they would probably be more suited to the intimacy of a smaller space. Over six rooms, the whole is spread too thin and never quite gets to grip with the architectural scale of the pavilion.

Words: Sue Hubbard © Artlyst 2019
Top Photo: Cathy Wilkes by Martin Brown ©
All Other Photos P C Robinson © Artlyst

Chantal Joffe
Her Own Sense Of Being

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

Chantal Joffe Victoria Miro London: In his seminal 1972 book Ways of Seeing, the late John Berger claimed that: ‘A woman must continually watch herself…From earliest childhood, she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself…She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because of how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another…One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at…Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’

Joffe asserts her right to be herself, someone who inhabits her unique presence, her own skin not for another, least of all for a man.

Berger argued that the ongoing connection between post-Renaissance European painting of women and contemporary sexualised posters and images in girly magazines determined our understanding of femininity. The contemporary woman portrait painter, therefore, has to deal not only with the mechanistic and aesthetic problems of paint and picture surface but with the weight of this legacy. She has to ask who and what she is painting and who that painting is for.

The artist Chantal Joffe takes this conundrum by the painterly horns in her two new Victoria Miro exhibitions, held across both galleries, in Mayfair and Islington. The Front of My Face in the West End presents a series of self-portraits in all their unflattering, existential angst. Looking at them reminded me of Martin Luther’s proclamation at the 1521 Diet of Worms: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’. Whilst Luther was asserting his Christian faith, Joffe a 21st-century woman painter, asserts her right to be herself, someone who inhabits her unique presence, her own skin, not for another, least of all for a man. She is simply there. Being. Thinking. Feeling. Even for a male painter such as Freud, in his defiant Painter Working 1993, where he stands with his old man’s body, naked in a pair of unlaced boots, artist’s palette in hand, such candidness is rare.

Chantal Joffe documents her face and its changing moods. She lurks behind the sculptural slabs of paint, the eyes both sad and watchful, confrontational yet fearful. The mouth is downturned. The lips sealed as if in a refusal to give anything away. She appears to be collapsing under the weight of herself. Her flesh sags. There are deep grooves around her nose, imperfections and bags beneath her eyes. At times, as in Self-Portrait V January, she seems to transmogrify into a man. This is not some gender-bending exercise but a refusal to conform to perceived notions of prettiness and femininity. She presents us with uncensored versions of how she feels on any particular day: sad, wistful, fearful, anxious, ugly, defiant. Each of her paintings is a meditation of sorts, her face a barometer of fleeting and ever-changing moods. There’s also a defiant humour as she presents herself against the grain of the ubiquitous self-enhancing selfie that always attempts to show its subject in the most flattering light. There’s a refusal to glamorise, titillate or flatter.

Having interviewed her in the past, I know that we share a common interest in the work of the early 20th-century German Expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker, about whom I wrote a novel. Modersohn-Becker, both in her self-portraits and depictions of peasants from the north German moors, sought truth over conventional beauty, psychological insight and empathy over aestheticism. Her influence on Chantal Joffe, who has many postcards of her paintings around her studio, has been considerable. As has the work of the American painter, Alice Neel, not only in the way Neel loosely applies paint but in how she empathises and identifies with her subject.

Over in Wharf Road, Joffe presents a series of large-scale paintings of teenagers that document their mixture of vulnerability and insouciant, ‘whatever’ cool. The gaze of these young women is not so uncompromising as those of the self-portraits. They glance sideways or look at the floor from beneath heavy-lidded almond eyes. In a full-length portrait of a girl (her daughter) in a white shirt and grey mini-skirt, her arms hang awkwardly by her sides as though she’d much prefer to be elsewhere. The large horizontal portrait with plaits, lying on a dark grey sofa, chunky legs exposed beneath a checked green mini-dress, presents her as part sexualised odalisque and part vulnerable bolshie teenager. It’s in the portrait on the beach, hands on hips, dressed in a checked skirt like the grid from a Modernist painting, carrying a black handbag and wearing a little round, rather 1950s hat, that we sense her defiance. Ironically, the most vulnerable portrait is the single painting of a young man. With his hairless baby-pink chest and brown nipples, he looks uncomfortably at the floor with a sidelong stare.

The subject of Joffe’s painting is always life, which she gives us warts, anxiety and all. She charts the process of living and ageing, tracing the difficulties, disappointments and small victories it throws up like a series of maps on the landscape of the faces she paints. Few do so with such disarming honesty.

Chantal Joffe Victoria Miro 14 George Street, London W1S 1FE and 16 Wharf Road, London N1 7RW Until 18th May 2019

The Forgetting and Remembering of Air



‘There is nothing safely aesthetic about these poems, beautifully observed though they frequently are. The watching intelligence reaches so far into the places, situations or works of art that it nearly forgets itself, and maybe desires to. The central block of poems on the tragic deaths of women signal that danger, and make it all the more of an achievement when the closing poems journey to the edge of the Atlantic, almost beyond comfort or habitable land, and come back with a final, hard-won ‘…yes’’
Philip Gross

‘There are two kinds of islands’ begins the poem, Dreaming of Islands, ‘those born of erasure and fracture’. From the ‘river’s dark skin’ at Bow Creek to Yves Klein, from St Ives to Prussian Blue; from Cliff and Elvis to Charing Cross, from Dora Carrington to Diane Arbus, Sue Hubbard locates places and people with a lyrical precision of voice, following those erasures and fractures to a ‘fragile yes’. The poems surge with a natural force breathing the world ‘into and out of itself’. A mixture of nature and art, this is an impressive book.
George Szirtes

‘Whether describing the Thames estuary or the remote west coast of Ireland, Sue Hubbard pays close and exact attention to the elemental world and the vulnerability of the human within it. These moving poems face the “anthracite dark” outside and inside us, and emerge renewed by it, like prayers “written on the waves”.’
Pascale Petit

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‘The cover image of The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, Sue Hubbard’s third book of poems, is one of devastation. An immense edifice, a once imposing mansion, stands, like Manderley, razed to the ground. Only its façade remains, the rest blown through, empty. The landscape is bare, treeless, against a Titian sky. A turquoise blue. A promise of blue.

The collection is in three parts. Part one, A Meaningful Speech, is about voices: the undeclared, imagined voices of the slipware vessel in ‘Conversation with a Bowl’; the artist’s model in ‘Naked Portrait 1972-3’, ‘After Lucian Freud’; the silent daughter in ‘Figs’, contrasting with the juddered puttering of sounds in ‘Radio Days’. Part two, Over the Rainbow, begins with ‘The Fall’, the story of a suicide. Described with the luminescent graphicness of a Jane Campion film, Margaret Moyes lies ‘amid the smashed lilac and fallen birdcage, [her] spine snapped like a twig’. Her descent, her death, with her ‘black silks billowing’, is a thing of beauty, as are the deaths of the other notorious characters who populate this second section. Dora Carrington in ‘Dora’, Eva Braun in ‘Eva’, Marilyn Monroe in ‘Eve Arnold Remembers’, Assia Hughes in ‘Note for Ted’, Diane Arbus in ‘Last Supper, After Diane Arbus’ and Isabella Blow in ‘Blow by Blow for Isabella Blow’. Such a relentless, exquisite falling, one after another – begun with Yves Klein’s ‘stepping out from that high window’ in ‘Klein’s Blue’ and ending with the ‘flash, the muffled boom’ of the suicide bomber in ‘Black Widow’. Part three, The Idea of Islands, represents a stripping down of life’s rich promise – the Black Widow’s reward of ‘cool gardens’ lies ravaged and desolate. The poet is exposed, like Mary Oliver in ‘The Journey’, to ‘the wild night and the road full of fallen branches’, as she strides ‘deeper and deeper’ into the world, the inner world of self – a self that she has come to realise has ‘more loving within than those who are easily loved.’

Hubbard, a poet envious of the artist, tries ‘to write a line of colour’. And she does, masterfully. Her poems are a shock of colour – zinging and connecting with hue. The ‘endless’ ultramarine of ‘Klein’s Blue’, flooding into the ‘welkin hyacinth, azure and Prussian blue’ of ‘White Canvas’. The yellow of the marigold gloves in ‘Keeping Hens’, finding the yellow in the Chinese dressing gown ‘hanging limp upon the door’ in ‘Dora’, the infirmary green of the model’s skin in ‘Naked Portrait 1972-3’, remembered in ‘the glutinous green mucus in the cold bathroom sink’ in ‘Bronchitis’. Colour and deftly chosen detail stands us still, picking out the moment like an Edmund Dulac illustration in a children’s book, resonant with bejewellled exquisiteness. And yet there is horror too at noticing, amid the destruction, the Mayflower cooker and the smell of Vosene in ‘Note for Ted’, the Ladybird Airtex vest in ‘Nits’ and the Ferragamo shoes in ‘Eva’. Repetition sets the tone, tells and moves the story on through its repeated saying – the unremitting use of words like ‘water’, ‘rain’, ‘mist’, ‘wind’, ‘ink’, ‘window’, ‘home’ creating an impasto of sensation that drums at our feelings like storm-rain on a pane.

The Forgetting and Remembering of Air is a stunning piece of work – an achingly moving narrative of love for a child, parent, sibling, lover or icon. In these poems Hubbard is travelling through love and its possibilities of home, moving fast towards the acceptance of the disappointment, the ruin of it, like that great house of the cover. ‘The Idea of Islands’ finds her acquiescent to the dark – the ‘forgetting’. In these final poems the voice – ‘I’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ – holds us rapt. The promise of blue, the previous sumptuous oozing of colour, of life, has gone; there is just the ‘green fuse, the quiet heart beating’. Hubbard drags her nascent grief, like Robert Bly’s black bag, through the body of all these poems – a heavy journeying through which she ‘had hoped for miracles’ and the ‘merging of I with you’ but finds only a ‘returning again and again’ that is ‘always indifferent’.

‘…Yes’, the final poem in the collection, is the same word that greeted John Lennon in November 1966 as he climbed that ladder in the Indica Gallery. Before doing so he had been handed a card that simply read, ‘breathe’. Hubbard, with such tender self-compassion, shows how pain, fear and rejection of life make us hold our breath. And that to breathe, to remember air, is to will, to contract oneself to life, to yield to that ‘fragile… yes’.’
Ellen Bell, New Welsh Review, Issue 101

By contrast, The Forgetting and Remembering of Air finds Sue Hubbard troubled by the difficulty of trying to convey the physical details of a landscape exactly. In ‘White Canvas’, a poem set at Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, she describes:

Such blue that only a painter’s
pigment can achieve a simile.
I try to write a line of colour,
but words are a string of biro scrawls
without air or light or hue…

This is a highly visual collection, painterly in its sensibility. ‘Meeting’ captures ‘that moment when the sun / breaks through to illuminate the crumbling mortar’ of a garden wall, a scene both fragile and temporarily complete. In ‘Songs of Andalucia’, lightning briefly silhouettes a wrecked building, a radio pylon and a dirt track, and the narrator reflects ‘there must be something to be learnt / from watching’. Hubbard sees correspondences of form everywhere. In ‘Nits’, a basin left ‘stippled with black stubble’ brings back the memory of a young boy having his head combed for nits, ‘the sink filling with a shower / of snowy eggs and broken black bodies’. The act of looking leaves behind a longing for what can’t be visualized. In ‘Conversation With a Bowl’, the narrator laments ‘I cannot exhaust you simply / by looking, / cannot reach the secret interior of your dense clay body…’. Elsewhere, in ‘A Meaningful Speech’, Hubbard asks ‘What do things know?’ and imagines how objects might bear traces of their histories. The poems in this collection are often preoccupied by what cannot be seen or what is no longer seen. In ‘The Idea of Islands’, form is imagined even when it’s invisible:

I know that out there
there is not nothing
for my mind recalls the idea of islands…

Meanwhile, the enigmatic poem ‘Smokers’ considers the forgotten art of smoking indoors (‘you hardly ever see them now, banned from every pub and bar…’) before moving towards a tender, half-buried memory of the narrator watching her father smoke a pipe as in the gloaming of that smoke-filled gloom, I longed to be what I could never be, a light between despair and luminosity: his chosen girl – and how the yearning only made the room feel darker.

Hiraeth at work again, tantalizing, precise in its imprecision. It’s in this territory – between landscapes, between languages – that poetry seems to happen.
Helen Mort

‘In this, her third collection, Sue Hubbard meditates on art and the natural world. By going to the extreme edge of western Ireland, to a Cornish beach, to the rim of the Solway Firth and the mouth of the Thames she explores, in these disarmingly direct and evocative poems, in a language that is muscular and lyrical, painterly yet spare, the illusion of romantic love and the letting go of childhood grief. In the central section, based on paintings by the artist Rachel Howard, she examines the psychology of different women in extremis.

Suicide is known in all human societies. For Freud, it was one possible outcome of severe manic depression, of being caught between feelings of intense love and hate or in an unresolved oedipal conflict. The sociologist, Durkheim, claimed it was the result of anomie – the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and their community – which causes feelings of powerlessness, lack of meaning and isolation.

For women, a sense of self-worth is still largely based on appearance, youth and relationships. Yet the lives of many are dominated by the fear of rape, unwanted pregnancy, male violence, poverty and ageing. While some women experience a fundamental lack of autonomy and self-determination, others are lambasted as ‘over achievers’, who are assumed to be ‘unfeminine’ ‘difficult’ or ‘feisty’. For the creative woman – even in this post-feminist age – there is still a constant pull between the demands of motherhood and creativity, along with the sneaky, guilty belief that she does not have the right to pursue her own vision. The reasons for suicide are, nevertheless, varied: depression, the loss of a relationship, shame, a sense of failure and despair, all play their parts.

Celebrities live under a particular set of pressure-cooker circumstances. Often an innate low self-esteem has been bolstered by a life-style full of unrealistic expectation and false notions of perfection. Those whose careers are failing or who have become enmeshed in scandal are often forced to play out their battles with loneliness, depression, alcohol and drugs in the public domain.

Rachel Howard’s ”Suicide Paintings” were first shown at the Bohen Foundation in New York, in 2007, and exhibited at Haunch of Venison, London in 2008. The series evolved after an acquaintance of Howard’s committed suicide. He was discovered, not in the imagined drama, ‘swinging from the rafters’, but kneeling in a pose almost of prayer. It was this particular detail that Howard found most disturbing, and which led her to create the series, coupled with the fact that for her, suicide is one of the last taboos. The source material came from trawling through forensic magazines and internet sites. These images were then abstracted from their contexts within Howard’s rapidly executed line drawings.

In response to these the award-winning poet, novelist and art critic, Sue Hubbard, who has written about Howard’s art work, has created a series of poems that sit alongside the images in an emotional and visual dialogue, and illuminate the deaths of women as various as Diane Arbus, Judy Garland, Dora Carrington and a female suicide bomber. Taken from her newly published third collection, The Forgetting and Remembering of Air, these disarmingly, direct and evocative poems explore, in a language that is muscular and lyrical, painterly yet spare, the psychology of these very different women in extremis.

This brave, bold, collaboration between two women artists, each highly regarded in her own field, demonstrates that there is still something important to say about the poignancy and tragedy of the human condition.’
Wall Street International Magazine

‘In this third full-length collection, we are made to feel the elemental forces of weather, the ‘exhalation of tides’, the rhythms of language searching to reach beyond its limits in the need to apprehend

a landscape of shadowed voices,
beating wings and tumbling streams
where we’re not so estranged
from the language of stars.” Dreaming of Islands

Whether the poems evoke the isolation of the human and the harsh but redemptive power of landscape, the attempt to come to terms with the ravages to self, the struggle to survive and to continue to love, there is an acute sense of journeying to the edge of the ‘habitable world’ in order to return, better able to live.

In ‘Love in Whitstable,’ dedicated to a grandson, Louie, Hubbard writes,

“Believe me, if I could, I’d
make a deal
with that God
I hardly believe in,
just to show you what
it takes to be here.”

Alongside an unswerving urgency, this work is peppered with felicitous detail and wry tenderness:

“the homely brown cow
with the film-star fringe” (A Meaningful speech)

‘your small body shivering
inside your Ladybird airtex vest,
towel draped prize-fighter style
around your shoulders,’ (Nits)

In a beautifully atmospheric backward glance, Hubbard gives us:

“as in the gloaming
of that smoke-filled gloom, I longed
to become what I could never be,
a light between despair and
luminosity:” Smokers

Hubbard’s painterly eye has a natural affinity for the page which she would imbue with the sensual layerings of a visual medium:

“I try to write a line of colours,
but words are a string of biro scrawls
without air or light or hue.” White Canvas

But neither does she shy away from the predatory nature of art, the colonising role of the artist, such as in Blood Paintings, after Andy Goldsworthy:

“he stuffed the sac of its stomach
with blood and snow,
hanging it by its hind legs
from a hook in the Dutch interior
of the cold pantry.”

A much respected art critic, Hubbard uses her knowledge and understanding
of this medium to powerful effect.

In the section, Over The Rainbow, the poet explores, with a deft touch, a precise working of the image, representations of women in art and history; the destructive, sometimes violent force of love and sex, rigidly defined and culturally restrictive:

“alone amid the long
shadows of the bunker,
gave me
my wedding gift, the thin glass vial
placed like a fresh-water
pearl in
my palm.” Eva

What remains with me above all else, is the poet’s evocation of place, both spiritual and visceral, and most potent perhaps in the sequence Dreaming of Islands, a gathering into itself of the inchoate, ‘anthracite dark’, the expanses of light –– the dark just about mitigated by the light –– which the poet must shape into human utterance. There’ s a defining sense of the healing properties of close observation, of how landscape can focus and restore us against the noise and clamour. A profound instinct that here in these forbidding landscapes, these islands, less shaped by the human, a language of compassion and redemption can patiently, courageously be brought into being.

In a postmodern world, there is an unapologetic desire to create a rich, mellifluous language within the spareness and anti-Romanticism of a post-modern world, one which can recalibrate the atavistic, almost Pantheistic presence of nature in a secular, degraded world. Again and again, these poems articulate what it is to work through pain and hardship, towards hard-won acceptance and the possibility of forgiveness:

“as the morning slips through
my fingers like sand,
like love, and the tireless waves push on 
into their own futures, as I reach
for a pen, struggling to transcribe
word by word, sentence by sentence,
this fragile
… yes”
Linda Rose Parks

Publication details

96 pages, hardback
ISBN: 9781907773396

The Idea of Islands



The Idea of Islands is a unique collaboration that brings together a series of emotionally incisive poems by English poet Sue Hubbard and powerfully atmospheric drawings by Irish artist Donald Teskey RHA, inspired by a remote and starkly beautiful location on the wild, western seaboard of Ireland.

‘Poet and artist collaborations are generally more exciting than novelist/artist ones, if only because the artist in the latter tends to be regarded primarily as an illustrator. That is distinctly not the case with The Idea of Islands where the dark, painterly, drawings of Donald Teskey and the atmospheric, but sharply observed poems of Sue Hubbard add up to something more – more in fact than a kind of joint-reportage on sense of place. The sense of place here is also the place of body and mind where, as one poem puts it, “we feel ourselves / to be made from earth / our cells are filled with water”. Life and place move around and within each other becoming each other’s memorable conditions.’
George Szirtes

‘Cill Rialaig is at the edge of the beautiful and atmospheric southernmost peninsula of Kerry. Sue Hubbard writes her spare poems about a harsh winter pilgrimage there, testing the body and mind to its limits. Donald Teskey depicts the landscape surfaces of the place in magnificent drawings. ‘Now His Days’ and ‘Light Breaks Celestial’ pick up the words of the poems, but the pictures could be of nowhere else. This is a magical, searching book.’
Bernard O’Donoghue

Letting the images speak is also a feature of the collaboration between poet Sue Hubbard and artist, Donald Teskey whose large black and white charcoal drawings add depth to the poetry. Poetry and images emerge from Cill Rialaig, a remote peninsular of Co. Kerry where an abandoned village has been saved from dereliction by becoming a project for artists in residence who brave harsh winters far away from modern conveniences. The pictures are full of dark energy, waves crash from them in sparks of light, fence-posts bow in the wind against a back-drop of unforgiving hills, cottage in the shadows of the cliffs. The same sense of place in both images and words is immediate and visceral. The islands are empty, ‘the battering sea/lashing/their glassy rocks with the spittle of lost tongues.’ (Ballinskelligs) while at ‘Cill Rialaig’ the poet realises, ‘I understand the loneliness/of storms’ and how on ‘the edge of the world’ the ‘stones breathe/destitution and loss.’

In this raw landscape in the depths of winter the place seeps into Hubbard’s bones so that her reflections on land and her own body and mind become one,and how life is only this moment at midnight, a guttering candle and a terrible wind.

Set in a wild, remote landscape, on the west coast of Ireland, Cill Rialaig is a pre-ramine village that clings to at steep slope 300 feet above the sea on the old road that leads to Bólus Head. The restored stone cottages of the village, which now support residencies for visiting artists, are about as far west as you can go in Europe without falling off. From this rugged coast the island rock of Skellig Michael is visible, some eight miles out into the Atlantic, where pre-Augustinian monks once built their beehive huts. This is a landscape permeated with history and memories. It was here that the poet Sue Hubbard and the painter Donald Teskey met and initiated a collaboration that resulted in this book.

The Idea of Islands comprises a suite of fifteen emotionally incisive poems by Sue Hubbard and eleven powerfully atmospheric drawings by Donald Teskey RHA.

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‘In this place where ‘the motions of mind/have nothing/to hang onto’ (New Year) and where what is learnt is ‘how old I have become’ (Odyssey) there is nonetheless a fragile but deep vein of optimism; the water ‘endlessly adapts//fluid against the rigidity of rock’ and ‘though we feel ourselves/to be made of earth/our cells are filled with water.’ Moreover, there are occasional rays of sunlight, and although this ‘does not erase/this vast emptiness’ yet, ‘we are not so alone/in this disappearing world’. (Bólus Head) and the final work is ‘…yes’ (…yes).’
Jan Fortune-Wood, editor Envoi

‘What Donald Teskey and Sue Hubbard have produced in The Idea of Islands is a marriage of shared lyric sensibilities and their own harmony of ideas that serves to sustain this coupling of word and image. A perfect marriage it is too, and those sensibilities are acutely attuned to the distinct and atmospheric qualities to be found out at the “edge of the whip-lashed Atlantic”. The imaginative responses of both artist and writer are perfectly complementary. When the poet describes the sea as being “black as a saucer of spilt ink”, the painter renders it so with all the power and drama (and dark foreboding) that the sea itself often yields. Like the islands themselves, bare and austere, Teskey’s evocative, beautifully textured drawings and Hubbard’s sequence of reflective and highly visual poems stand unadorned but infused by the same sense of mystery that emanates from these desolate outposts. This double focus accumulates into a vividly thematic book that, in the making, has resulted in a fine example of the craft of book-making.’
Gerard Smyth, Literary Editor, The Irish Times

Publication details

Sue Hubbard and Donald Teskey
Occasional Press
52 pages
ISBN: 9780954897697 (hardback)
ISBN: 9780954897673 (paperback)

Ghost Station



In this long awaited second collection, Sue Hubbard gathers together five major sequences which combine to form in a journey of love, loss and redemption. The central theme is an extended elegy to the poet’s brother. Hubbard guides us into labyrinths of haunting emotion and dares to give utterance to our deepest concerns. Exploring both the dark and the light, she gives voice to raw emotion, to our vulnerabilities, so often concealed, and through its disclosure suggests the possibility of renewal.

Poems full of painterly, sensual detail that balance eye and ear. They tell the story of the perceived world with intense lyric accuracy yet their true power lies in describing a terrain coloured by loss yet redeemed through love and poetic observation.

‘Sue Hubbard, as you would hope of an art critic, pays close and sensitive attention to the appearances of things. At the same time, she has a feeling for what is going on underneath. So the world of her poems, in which phenomena are noted with great precision, seems at once stable and highly unstable. Under its exact surfaces much is fluid, shifting and uneasy. She may delight in appearances, but under all there is the trouble of an unsettled grief. ‘Loss,’ she writes, ‘goes on and on’. Her poems will never evade that that fact, but bravely, by the act of memory, and by insisting on the continuing beautify of life in the real world, they answer back.’
David Constantine

‘Ghost Station is a marvellous book. Whether she is writing about art, love or memory, Sue Hubbard pays attention to the important things: the details, the incidentals, the faraway, the everyday, all the things we are inclined to neglect which make up the real fabric of our daily lives.’
John Burnside

‘From its opening poem, ‘Nude in a Bathtub’, about the wife Pierre Bonnard painted again and again until her death, the poems in this collection repeatedly move from a powerful evocation of the intimacy of relationships to a painful sense of what it is to experience their loss. In the title poem ‘Ghost Station’, a list of lost objects – ‘a bent hair-pin lodged for years under a wooden carriage seat, a single collar-stud trapped beneath the floor’ – creates a haunting but general regret for lost lives. But a moving sequence of lyric laments about a brother who committed suicide deal powerfully and bravely and with the poet’s personal grief. This is a collection by a poet who is not afraid to employ strong emotion and who uses her visual imagination to powerful and vivid effect.’
Vicki Feaver

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‘Here then is a poet who serves as an antidote to the chirpy shalllow materialism of much of our culture, one whose most apparent quality is an honesty about the difficulties of living in the early 21st century.’
Martyn Crucefix, Magma

‘Sue Hubbard brings passionate and prophetic visions into the sphere of family life… An accomplished art-critic, Hubbard can convey the pictorial in vivid and startling language.’
Peter Lawson, Jewish Chronicle – The Weekly Review

‘It is hard to get poems ‘right’ about the death of a close relative, lover, or friend; mawkishness and sentimentality are dangers as is indulgent reminiscence and nostalgia. Hubbard avoids all of these with her pared down lines and stark scene setting, ending with startling directness with a powerful acknowledge of nature’s indifference to the matter of our small deaths.’
Richard Dyer, Ambit

Publication details

122 pages
214 x 140 mm
ISBN: 9781844710355

Oxford Poets



This first Oxford Poets anthology introduces the work of six new writers whose poems extend the rich tradition of the Oxford list, now continuing to develop through Carcanet in association with the English Faculty, Oxford University. The Oxford Poets editorial panel makes the selection, acknowledging promise and achievement. There is no editorial programme or ideology beyond a desire to represent the best. Drawing on a wealth of submitted manuscript material, the editors chose what they found most compelling in terms of formal and rhythmic invention. Verse metred or unmetred, rhymed or unrhyming, with sure or fragmented syntax, makes specific claims. The poem, not the poet, answers.

Stephanie Moorgate
Tim Kendall
Joe Sheerin
Sue Hubbard
Jenny Lewis
Rebecca Elson

‘Physical, elegiac and intensely visual.’
Ruth Padel on Sue Hubbard

‘Haunting, powerful material, beautifully realised, poems that kept coming back to me, kept making me think…poignant, frank and open-handed.’
Jo Shapcott on Sue Hubbard

Publication details

Carcanet Press
144 pages
212 x 134 mm
ISBN: 9781903039038

Everything Begins With The Skin



‘Haunting, sensuous and at times disturbingly sharp in their revealed intimacies; her eye – and her touch – are vividly alive to the pleasure of surface, as well as to dark depths of anger and melancholy.’
Marina Warner

‘She reminds me of Gwen John in her stillness and love of the ‘actually loved and known…giving generously of life and warmth and technical mastery.’
Sebastian Barker

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‘… poems of genuine power.’
Alan Brownjohn, The Sunday Times

‘This is a woman’s life and love. It is not hard to respond to the celebration of these rich interiors, the warmth and the grief.’
London Poetry Newsletter

‘A painter’s eye for detail.’

‘Full of lush, sensual detail … bleakly moving.’
The New Statesman

‘In her first full-length collection, this London poet informs her poems with a painter’s vision, sketching intense portraits of domesticity. When her daughter begins menstruating, she refuses to echo her own mother’s whispered “The Curse,” and urges the girl to “Feel your roots, deep/ and damp as rusty beets smelling of earth.” Going beyond the visual, these unflinching poems take into account all the senses as they mark one woman’s journey from childhood through motherhood, from love through, as one poem is titled, “Betrayal.” Focusing mainly on women, Hubbard juxtaposes friends and relatives with legendary and artistic figures in a well-crafted collection that, taking an approach less common in British poetry than American, mines the unique riches of everyday experience.’
Publishers Weekly

Publication details

52 pages, hardback
ISBN: 9781870612494

Venetian Red



‘Lyrical, sensuous, genuinely passionate things, Sue Hubbard’s poems are full of clearly realised images. The passion is not too breathy or fragile though the poems are definitely feminine.’
George Szirtes

‘She reminds me of Gwen John in her stillness and love of the ‘actually loved and known’ … generously of life and warmth and technical mastery.
Sebastian Barker

Publication details

Hearing Eye
24 pages
ISBN: 9781870841276




UK edition
French edition
UK edition
US edition
Chinese edition

Newly widowed, Martha Cassidy has returned to a remote cottage in a virtually abandoned village on the west coast of Ireland for reasons even she is uncertain of. Looking out her window towards the dramatic rise of the Skellig Islands across the water, Martha recalls the losses in her life: Brendan, her itinerant husband and charming curator, and her ten-year-old son, Bruno, who met an untimely death twenty years earlier. Alone on the windswept headland, surrounded by miles of cold sea, the past closes in.

As the days unfold, she finds herself drawn into a standoff between the entrepreneur Eugene Riorden and local hill farmer Paddy O’Connell. As the tension between them builds to a crisis that leaves Paddy in hospital, Martha develops a relationship with Colm, a talented but much younger musician and poet – roughly the same age that Bruno would have been if he’d lived. Caught between its history and its future, the Celtic Tiger reels with change, and Martha faces choices that will change her life forever.

Rainsongs conjures the rugged beauty of County Kerry’s coastline and the inner landscapes of its characters in richly poetic and painterly language, moving effortlessly between the lives of people and the life of the terrain; between the forces that shape character and those that shape the world. It unfolds as a compelling tale of grief, art, and the fragile, quiet ways in which time and place can offer a measure of redemption.

‘For her keen and gracious insights into the relentless grieving process, for her transcendent evocation of the rough charm and enduring splendor of Ireland’s rural treasures, Hubbard deserves a place in the literary pantheon near Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, and William Trevor.’
Carol Haggas, American LIbrary Associaion Booklist

‘A compelling story, freighted with heartbreak and loss’
Shena Mackay

‘A beautifully-written and evocative novel about grief and greed, art and life, isolation and emotion’
Amanda Craig

‘A lyrical evocation of Ireland’s fragile, ancient coastline reveals a poet’s sensibility. This multi- layered story of love and loss, of a woman ‘erased by grief’, who finds solace in the heart of a community that is threatened from within, is exceptionally moving. This book will stay with you.’
Eleanor Fitzsimons

Click for reviews and press…

‘Woolfian echoes and quotations pulse through Rainsongs, haunting the reader with the ubiquity of mother love and longing.’
The Guardian

‘Hubbard’s precise descriptions of the physical landscape are tremendous and moving. Her knowledge of Irish history and culture is impressive.’
The Irish Times

Un récit sensible et sombre, troué de lumière et réchauffé par la poésie minimaliste que dégage la langue de Sue Hubbard.
Gaspard Iris, Télé Z

Star Tribune
Irish Echo
The Jewish Chronicle
The London Magazine
Daily Mail
The Guardian
Irish Independent
Shiny New Books
The Irish Times
The Irish Times
Library Thing
Book Marks – collected reviews for Rainsongs

Reviews in French
Les Echos
Librairie Bruneteaux

Translations of French reviews

Click for interviews…

Sue Hubbard talks about the inspiration behind her novel Rainsongs:

Day Bowman on Rainsongs:

Sue Hubbard interviewed about Rainsongs:

Sue Hubbard interviewed about Rainsongs:

Sue Hubbard discusses Rainsongs:
RTE Radio 1, Ireland

Sue Hubbard Rainsongs interview: Wombwell Rainbow

Publication details

UK edition
242 pages
ISBN: 9780715652855

US edition
Overlook Press
240 pages
ISBN: 9781468316636

French edition (Le Chant de la Pluie)
Mercure de France
288 pages
ISBN: 9782715250765

Chinese edition
Yilin Press

Girl in White



Paula Modersohn-Becker was a pioneer of modern art in Europe, but denounced as degenerate by the Nazis after her death. Sue Hubbard draws on the artist’s diaries and paintings to bring to life her singular existence, her battle to achieve independence and recognition and her intense relationship with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Not only do we discover Paula’s vibrant personality and rich legacy of Expressionist paintings, but also come to understand something of the corrupted ideologies of the Third Reich. Written with the eye of a painter and the soul of a poet this moving story is a meditation on love, loss, memory and, ultimately, hope.

‘Imagine a chest of drawers – unopened for a hundred years. Inside small garments carefully folded. A woman today opens the drawers, unfolds what she finds and, as she does so, the garments become stories. The chest of drawers belonged to the painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907). … (and contain) the secrets of some exceptional, very lonely paintings, which had a considerable influence on “modern” German art. …those intimate folds become interstices of History, beyond any notion of what is modern or not. I recommend this haunting book.’
John Berger

‘Beautifully written and wholly knowledgeable – Girl in White is a triumph of literary and artistic understanding, a tour du force: masterly, moving. ‘Hubbard goes where few dare go, and succeeds. You are the less for not reading it.’
Fay Weldon

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‘”In art,” the Expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) declared, “one is usually totally alone with oneself.” For a female artist in the early 20th century, such aloneness was radical in itself. It is Modersohn-Becker’s radical aloneness, as artistic pioneer and independent woman, which particularly fascinates Sue Hubbard in her new novel, a fictionalised account of the artist’s life.

During her most productive period – her last stay in Paris – she is destitute, and repeatedly compelled to appeal for financial aid from others, including her estranged husband. Ultimately, she returns from Paris to her husband in Germany, forced by history into this “compromise”. As one character puts it, “I don’t believe the world is yet ready for a woman artist to make it alone.

Yet it is precisely this “aloneness” that is a prerequisite for art. “Art without pain, without sacrifice, without loneliness,” says Rainer Maria Rilke, one of Modersohn-Becker’s lovers, is “impossible”. It is the impossibility of Modersohn-Becker’s position – torn between the loneliness of art and enforced selflessness of her role as wife – that destroys her. After returning to her husband, she falls pregnant, and dies shortly after childbirth. The power of Hubbard’s novel for contemporary readers is in its distillation of dilemmas which, of course, are still pressing for women today. As Rilke wrote of Modersohn-Becker in his great poem “Requiem”, it is her spirit which, of all his dead friends, most seems to haunt the future.’
Jonathan Taylor The Independent

‘The poet and art critic, Sue Hubbard, has written a richly layered book about Paula Modersohn-Becker, … In Hubbard’s moving imagining of Paula’s story, she creates a believable, parallel tale about Paula’s daughter Mathilde, a violinist.’
Sipora Levy Jewish Chronicle 27th February 2013

Browen Griffiths reviews Girl in White

‘Any artist reading this book will feel a great amount of empathy with Paula. I particularly recommend this to those with an interest in the art world as it captures perfectly the romance and excitement of the industry while sympathetically capturing the dark emotions, poverty and confusion that often follow alongside. With particular nostalgia it delves into the Expressionist’s community of isolated and beautiful Worspswede; thus emphasising the alienation of many of the Expressionist poets and artists and the strong bonds they formed between one another. The use of characters such as Rilke and Rodin shows how the novel is a great exploration of this great cultural movement.

Hubbard’s use of the entirely fictional character of Mathilde creates a deeply emotional resonance within Paula’s story as it is slowly revealed in alternating chapters. As the reader delves into Paula’s secrets and thoughts so is her daughter – now just as vulnerable and lonely herself. Paula’s unsettled mind and the conflicting society of Worpswede become reflected in the unsettling Germany that now exists and the uncertain future that awaits Mathilde. What is never called into question though is the strength and courage of the Becker women. This is an incredibly nuanced and intense work and one which I strongly recommend.’
Francis Smithson Cardiff Studentmedia 28 November 2012

‘I have just read a beautiful novel about a real person. In The Girl in White, the English poet Sue Hubbard has written an imagined life of the German expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker; it’s an art form with the unattractively scientific sounding handle ‘biofiction’. I already knew a little bit about Paula’s work, but from a historical perspective: after her premature death in 1907 her work was denounced by the Nazis as degenerate. What I did not know was how she was in fact just beginning to find her confidence as an artist after an intense inner struggle to balance her many roles as daughter, mother, wife – and, above all, painter. In trying to live independently and survive on her earnings in an intensely male dominated world, she was ahead of her time. This was little more than a century ago but in some ways the difficulties she faced appear medieval, in others merely variations on the same struggle many women still face today… (click here to read the full review)’
Anna Seba, 22 October 2012

Click for interviews…

Interview with Sue Hubbard about Girl in White
Elatia Harris, 3 Quarks guest blog

Publication details

Republished 2022
Pushkin Press
320 pages
ISBN: 9781782279129

First published in 2012
Cinnamon Press
288 pages
198 × 130 mm
ISBN: 9781907090684

Adventures in Art

Art Books

‘Her pages about Rothko are the best I’ve read about the extraordinary painter. She honours Sam Becket as few others are able to do. We follow Sue Hubbard because she has the precision, the respect for words and pain of a poet. We follow her because (as she writes in one of her poems) “What if … one night swimming in the freezing water, you look own to find the bottom littered with stars.’
John Berger

‘Sue Hubbard’s Adventures in Art fluently archives her very impressive 20-year trajectory of critical writing within the art world, transporting us into a multiplicity of artist’s lives and methodologies, and forming a portrait of contemporary art today. Nothing is left untouched and unconsidered. These selected writings narrate her discovery of the meaning of art and provide a useful tool of understanding for readers.’
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Serpentine Gallery

This is a really insightful book. Sue Hubbard has been looking at contemporary and modern art for twenty years: her keen poet’s eye leads her to perceive things not always evident to the rest of us. Most gratifyingly, she writes a pleasing, lucid prose which makes complex ideas accessible and leaves us enriched by the clarity of her values.

These essays tackle a swathe of all that has been happening in painting and sculpture over recent decades. Their range is truly impressive: from Christian Boltanski to Helen Chadwick, from Anslem Kiefer to Jane and Louise Wilson. Along the way, Hubbard’s own taste and judgement evolved, giving us a vivid sense of what these turbulent creative times have been like. Their cumulative effect is to indicate the direction modern art is taking, and help us grapple with its meaning.
Joan Bakewell

Publication details

Published 2010
Other Criteria
248 x 190 mm
Hardback 160 pp
76 B&W illustrations
ISBN 978-1-906967-21-5

Depth of Field


Depth of Field is an acute observation of the nature of identity and memory. Hannah’s close observation of the physical world, both in the country and the East End, imbues it with a deep sense of both history and place. John Berger has described the novel as ‘highly evocative’ giving ‘the rare quality, not of a text, but of a place. It surrounds its readers and waits until they see in the dark to make their own discoveries.

Having grown up in the Home Counties, with her Jewish identity submerged and largely unidentified, Hannah experiences a sense of alienation and otherness. An early marriage to an emotionally repressed academic and their subsequent move to rural Somerset in search of the idyll of family life and self-sufficiency, is shattered by her husband’s infidelity.

Hannah returns to her embryonic career as a photographer, moving from the country to London’s East End – convinced that if she can find her roots, some connection with her grandparents’ Jewish past – that she will make sense of her life. A failed affair leads to a breakdown, and to her ex-husband gaining custody of her two children. Left alone to rebuild her life she begins to realise that we each have to construct our own lives. Identity is not dependent on spurious notions of ‘roots’ or ‘romance’.

‘Highly evocative… the rare quality, not of a text but of a place. It surrounds its readers and waits until they see in the dark and make their own discoveries.’
John Berger

“This is the first novel of a writer with genuine talent. Sue Hubbard’s originality lies in the gritty detail of the imagined past she pursues amongst the realities of a contemporary East End. This gives a remarkable freshness to a theme of a lost Jewish identity underlying Hannah’s moving story’
Elaine Feinstein

‘Depth of Field is a poet’s first novel in the best sense of the word; lyrical highly visual and beautifully observed. At its heart is the profound and moving study of one woman’s struggle for self determination…’
John Burnside

Depth of Field opening section…

Setting the focus

I am in the dark. This small room is like a nun’s cell. Everything in its place. Neat, spare and entirely functional. There is a sink, the developing trays, a shelf of chemicals. Above the workbench the safety lamp glows a womb-like red. I have got used to doing things by feel or touch, by intuition. On the other wall, away from the water is an enlarger and a stack of boxes containing different grades of photographic paper and my books. The walls are bare except for a small spot where the paint peeled when I finally took down the photo of Liam. It left a small patch like pale new skin after a sticking plaster has been removed. In the developing trays black and white shapes are beginning to emerge from the bromide like thin ghosts. They seem to come out of nowhere, fragile as those transparent moths that gathered in our garden porch, clustering round the storm lantern on late summer evenings. They surface silent as memories and like the moths will only last for a while until they too perish; their paper yellowing or torn, lost or crumpled at the back of some dark damp drawer. Born from silver grains, they will eventually begin to age, will suffer attacks of light, of humidity; fade, weaken, and then vanish. Once transcendence was achieved through remembrance; through the images we keep in our head, or a smell, a taste, the chance sound of a voice. Perhaps it isn’t coincidence that this is the century that invented both photography and history. But whereas history is simply a construct, the photograph is a device through which we try, for a brief moment, to hold time still before it moves relentlessly, indifferently on.

Sometimes I work listening to music. To Bach’s late cello concertos or a Brahms intermezzo. But this morning I need quiet. Being here in this silence, among the faint whiff of chemicals reminds me of the labour room, of all that whiteness. Only the dull electronic blip, that thin line pulsating on the green screen monitoring the foetal heart beat, the sound of my own breathing; the icy tiles and starched linen.

Through my lens I have raised them from murky obscurity. Particularised and named them. In a way given them birth. Mary, Winston, the small girls with black braids like oiled rope, in pink nylon dresses, skipping. The abandoned synagogue in Princelet Street.

In order to obtain a positive picture, in which the light and shade corresponds to the original subject, it is necessary to print the negative. Everything contains the potential to be its opposite.

Publication details

Dewi Lewis
192 pages
ISBN: 1899235825

Rothko’s Red



Rothko’s Red is a collection of ten stories, subtly linked by painting and art, about the lives of women: their hopes, fears, failures and challenges. They reveal the choices and destinies of a number of characters from very differing backgrounds, embracing the harsh realities of desire, loss and ageing.

Powerful, yet tender, psychologically intricate and emotionally perceptive, these fearless stories examine the complex lives of modern women. Substantial, moving and beautifully written they call upon both Sue Hubbard’s wide ranging knowldge of and feel for art, as well as her skill as a poet.

‘The ten stories in this dazzling collection share a connection – sometimes direct and sometimes oblique – to a painter or painting, ranging from Goya to Rothko, from Bernini to Jackson Pollock. Sue Hubbard is an art critic as well as a fine poet, and her understanding of human motivation is as highly developed as her feeling for language and art. She writes with perception and sensitivity about contemporary English women, and about the men who give them so much pleasure and pain.’Ruth Fainlight

‘Compelling and authentic, Sue Hubbard’s stories have the unmistakable feel of reality. Bleak, yet always tinged with love, the reality comes from the joining of distinct skills: the artist’s eye and talent for composition, and the poet’s touch, with imagery which is never laboured but always the perfect expression of a story’s theme. Not a word or picture is out of place.’Bernard O’Donoghue

Click for reviews and press…

‘Each story in this, Hubbard’s first collection of short fiction is nominally centred around art. But what truly links the pieces herein is the themes of longing, loss and melancholy, and a sense that not even an intimate knowledge of the beautiful and the sublime can protect one from the daily tragedies of life. The collection is quiet, almost to the point of defiance, but in its understated, delicate descriptions of the mundane, Rothko’s Red has an acute power.

While several of Hubbard’s protagonists ultimately find redemption, it is always at a cost to themselves; the academic who gets away with cheating on his wife, but not without being fleeced by his mistress; the widow who realises that she is content alone, but only after a disappointing sexual encounter with a man she meets on the internet; the middle-aged divorcee who has an affair with an immigrant you enough to be her son and who she regards with distant amusement.

With Hubbard’s background in art criticism and poetry, it is not surprising that her writing is painterly and vivid. She lingers on colours and textures, edges and scents: “Mummy grew tomatoes, red gems, that what she called them… I remember that special smell when she watered them in the early evening after a day of sun.”

The collection is quiet, almost to the point of defiance, but in its understated, delicate descriptions of the mundane, Rothko’s Red has an acute power.
The New Statesman

‘She certainly fashions an arresting opening in which Adam and Maggie gaze at a large magenta Rothko that prompts him to utter a paean to her genitals. But Adam is just the first in a long line of disappointing men blundering naively or selfishly through Hubbard’s stories. Inability to commit, unreliability, unfaithfulness – just some of the character faults her protagonists encounter in male partners.

Other recurring motifs are mildewed books and broken frames, silvery stretch marks, women washing under their breasts and their armpits, doing up ruins in Italy. Art links the stories and all the artists invoked are men. Unexpectedly, perhaps, the most powerful results are achieved when Hubbard ventures beyond her middle-class creative types. Janice, the farm worker’s abused wife whose knowledge of art is limited to the lid of a biscuit tin, wins our hearts when she starts stockpiling apple chutney in her son’s toy cupboard as a hopeful means of escape.

Evidence of the poet’s gift for imagery – “the wind snaps at the washing, filling out the drying shirts like the bloated bodies of the drowned” – is in plentiful supply. Of the ten stories, only two are in the first person. The second and last in the book is nakedly personal, and all the more powerful for it.’
Nicholas Royle, The Independent, 9th September 2009

Essay on Rothko’s Red by Isabel Fernandes:
“A short story that wouldn’t work after the opening lines”: Frustrated Maternity in First-Person Narratives

Publication details

160 pages, trade hardback 
198 × 129 mm (B format)
ISBN: 9781844714445

Diane Arbus
Street Of Secrets

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been’ wrote the photographer Diane Arbus, the poor little rich Jewish girl who walked on the wild side. Though the journeys she took were not just physical adventures along the boardwalks of Coney Island or to gender-bending night clubs but those in which she explored the rocky terrain of self-definition. From the start of her career she saw the street as a place full of secrets and reflected her subjects – whether children, the rich or poor, it didn’t matter – as isolated and adrift, remote from society and the world around them, caught up in their own reveries and physical space.  Her caste of characters appear like metaphors for themselves; each striving to make him or herself the starring role in their own private psychodrama.

Arbus was one of the first to give equal weight and value to all her subjects

Born Diane Nemerov to a Jewish couple who lived in New York City and owned Russek’s, a famous Fifth Avenue department store, she was insulated during the 1930s Depression by their wealth. Raised by maids and governesses, with a mother who suffered from depression, while her father was mostly absent with work, her early years coloured her emotional landscape. At the age of 18, in 1941, she received her first camera from her husband, Allan Arbus, and started making photographs, which she continued to do sporadically for well over a decade. During the early years the couple were engaged in a moderately successful career in fashion photography—she as the art director/stylist, he as the photographer/technician—using the credit line “Diane & Allan Arbus.” In 1956, she left the business partnership and committed herself full-time to her own work.

When she first took to the streets her photographic landscapes, which included Time Square, Coney Island and the street fairs of Little Italy, were similar to those of her predecessors and contemporaries such as Paul Strand and Lee Friedlander. But her photographs, snatched through doorways and shop windows, display a dispassionate voyeurism, rendering her something of an urban anthropologist who objectively observed the strange customs and happenings that she stumbled upon. Through her eyes, the mundane became edgy, whether she was photographing an ample naked woman in a white bathing hat showering on the beach at Coney Island or, what looks like, one of Sweeny Todd’s potential victims through an ordinary barbershop window in 1957 New York. It’s as though she was on a permanent lookout for the odd and the transgressive. As she wrote to a friend in 1960, “I don’t press the shutter. The image does. And it’s like being gently clobbered.”

For much of her working life she kept notebooks in which she recorded ideas and incidents gleaned from books and newspapers, tabloids and the telephone directory, incidentals that caught her imagination and could be used as potential subjects: morgue; freak at home; jewel box revue; roller derby women; dressing rm; women’s prison; weird women; paddy wagon; meat slaughterhouse; tattoo parlor; taxi dance hall-before hrs; lonelyhearts club; Happiness Exch.; lady wrestling; beggars-blind; place-waterfr. hotel; ladies room-coney-subway; daughters of Jacob dying. crime; despair; sin; madness; death; fame; wealth; innocence.

Alongside these jottings were extracted from a wide range of ancient and modern sources: Plato, Zen literature, Bram Stoker, Jean Cocteau (on Pablo Picasso), Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as Allen Ginsberg.

Her early chance encounters, which resulted in photographs such as Woman in a mink stole and bow shoes, N.Y.C 1960, and the image of a hirsute man in pork pie hat, boxer shorts and black shoes and socks standing on the beach in Coney Island, gave way to photographs such as Jack Dracula at a bar, New London Conn, 1961 in which the heavily tattooed young man sits in front of his glass of beer staring confidently at the viewer. From the ghoulish curiosity shown in a pair of Siamese twins preserved in a glass jar in a New Jersey carnival tent, Arbus’s role as a curious observer changed to one of privileged insider. She claimed: “I have learned to get past the door from the outside to the inside. One milieu leads to another.” There’s the sense that in The Human Pincushion, Ronald C. Harrion N.J. 1961 – where a middle-aged white man stands pierced with hatpins like some downtown secular Saint Sebastian – or the moustachioed Mexican dwarf striped to the waist beneath his little trilby in his N.Y.C hotel, are complicit in the making of the image. That Arbus’s half of the bargain was to make them visible and feel singled out from the crowd. There’s a strong sense running through all these images – particularly those of the many ‘female impersonators’ – that self-worth comes from being seen and recorded – even if harshly. But it often feels, despite her unerring eye, as though there is not much compassion in these photos. As she said: Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot…There’s a quality of legend about freaks….. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw’.

Today we’re used to public debates around gender, difference, race and sexual identity, used to the play between surface and depth, artifice and reality but Arbus was one of the first to give equal weight and value to all her subjects whether transsexuals, elderly matrons dressed in white furs, twins or Jewish giants. As early as the age of 16 she wrote that she had glimpsed ‘the divineness in ordinary things’. But, in truth, it is not ‘divineness’ that comes across but a transgressive solidarity with those that she saw as marginalised and reflected something of her own damaged psyche.

And her legacy? Arbus took us through keyholes to show the soft, vulnerable underbelly of other lives. She exposes the abject and the strange, the dull and the sad and, in so doing, finds fleeting moments of something akin to beauty.

Published in Artlyst

All the Rembrandts

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

With his Bob Dylan mop of curls and pug nose, he looks every inch the rebellious teenager that he was. The second youngest of ten children, three of whom died in infancy, Rembrandt was the son of a Protestant miller and a Catholic mother. Despite being sent to the Latin School in Leiden during his early years, he was soon chomping at the bit against formal education and was, at the age of 15 apprenticed, in 1621, to Van Swanenburg from whom he received intensive artistic training. Rembrandt would go on to become an innovator and a provocateur who’d turn the Dutch Golden Age of art upside down.

With a few scribbles and scrawls, he caught the tiny dramas of everyday life

History painting was considered the highest form of art. The French theorist, André Félibien, claimed that the human form occupied the pinnacle of artistic endeavour because the painter reproduced ‘the most perfect work of God on earth and thus is God’s follower’. To capture the ‘passions of the soul’ was a painter’s greatest achievement. To this end, self-portraits were practised in front of mirrors. With his eighty or so works – drawings, etchings and paintings – Rembrandt held the title of the artist with the most self-portraits well into the 19th century.

This wonderful exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, held to mark the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, is part of a yearlong celebration. For the first time, they are showing all 22 paintings, 60 drawings and more than 300 of the finest examples of the Rembrandt’s prints in their collection. It explores different aspects of Rembrandt’s life and works through a variety of themes. The first section is predominantly made up of self-portraits. The second focuses on his surroundings and the people in his life: his mother, his wife Saskia as she lies ill and pregnant in bed, as well as beggars, buskers and vagrants that illustrate Rembrandt had an ability to depict poses and emotional states with great empathy. The last section demonstrates his gifts as a storyteller. Old Testament tales inspired paintings such as the exquisite Isaac and Rebecca, more commonly known as The Jewish Bridge c 1665-1669, a work of such consummate skill in its handling of paint and one imbued with such deep tenderness that it takes the breath away, even after countless viewings.

Walking into the first room of this exhibition, it’s easy to see why Rembrandt holds such appeal across the centuries. His acute observation is evident in the tiny etchings that depict him dressed in a fury cap holding down his rebellious curls, bending forward, shouting, frowning, and with a ‘broad nose’. By turns, he looks startled, wide-eyed and surprised. He seems to have possessed a substantial collection of headgear – caps, berets and even oriental headdresses – that he variously used as props. But these are no social portraits. Here is an artist who shows us what it means to be an individual. What it is that constitutes the idea of ‘self’. A self that was, during the Renaissance, being newly defined as uniquely human rather than the result of divine creation. And he made detailed drawings of animals. A lion, and a pig, possibly seen in an Amsterdam market, also show their unique individuality as sentient beings.

Above all Rembrandt was interested in people. Not stereotypes or ideas but real living flesh and blood characters. Salacious depictions were hardly unknown in the 17th century, but his etchings of a man and a woman pissing go beyond mere voyeurism into a form of social realism. His wife Saskia is shown in numerous poses. His fluid lines suggest that often he drew directly onto the copper etching plates. He’d cover the plate with a mixture of resin and beeswax, then draw through that surface with a needle to expose the metal. The plate would then be immersed in acid, inked and put through a printing press. One of the most touching is a small etching of his young son, Titus as a 15-year-old, executed in a bare minimum of lines. Titus’s shock of hair and pensive gaze are particularly compelling. Etchings rarely came into being in a single session. In the early years, when still gaining experience, he might begin with the head, move onto the torso and finally add the background. A master of light and dark, he used contrasts to add emotional depth and range.

Poem by Sue Hubbard
From the beginning of his career, Rembrandt took on pupils for a fee. An essential part of their training was drawing lessons. Students drew from plaster casts and live models. Rembrandt often participated in these sessions and many of the drawings and etchings on show here originated this way and give a unique glimpse into the daily practices of his workshop.

The big draw of the Rijksmuseum is, of course, the Night Watch. Painted in 1642 it portrays, in almost cinemascope detail, Amsterdam’s ‘militiamen’, the city’s civic guard, which was commissioned for their guild headquarters, the Kloveniersdoelen. That he depicts the crowd in action was exceptional. Until then the subjects of group portraits were either shown standing or stiffly sitting side by side. Again, we see that Rembrandt is the master of light and shadow, which he uses to emphasise the captain’s hand gesture. Light also floods onto the small girl in a white dress standing, with a chicken hanging from her belt, in the central part of the painting. This was added, no doubt, as was the drummer on the right and the running boy on the left to convey immediacy, tension and drama.

To look at Rembrandt now, nearly 400 years after his death, is to be reminded of his keen observations, his vitality and realism. With a few scribbles and scrawls, he caught the tiny dramas of everyday life: a street woman making pancakes, a mother lifting the tunic of her small child so that he can pee in the canal. Technically astonishing in the way he conveys lace and cloth or portrays a landscape, his greatness lies not simply in these bravura skills but in the compassion, humour and truth that he shines on our frailties and vulnerabilities that show us, with deep tenderness, what it is to be human.

Published in Artlyst

Hanging Up My Ruby Red Slippers


Okay. I’m done. I’m through. I’m hanging up my ruby red slippers, my fuck-me shoes. I’m not going down that yellow brick road no more, no more. I’m giving up internet dating. I may have run a successful antique business in Portobello Road for many years which kept my three children in fish fingers, the three little children I was left with in the middle of Somerset – where I kept chickens, made bread and grew my own veg – when I was 31 and they were all under 6. I may have dragged myself off as a mature student up to the University of East Anglia, after I’d moved us like Ms Whittington to London, to do an MA in Creative Writing with the crème de la crème, whilst juggling child care as the other students hung out talking postmodernism in the bar. I may have written for Time Out, The Independent and The New Statesman as an art critic, published three collections of poetry, one of short stories and three novels but none of this is as anything compared to my failure with internet dating.

I have been at it since before they even had internet dating. When my ex left me for an older women while I was in my early 30s I was desperate to find someone new. To rekindle love and touch and remind myself I wasn’t the mad bad person he was trying to make me out to be. So I put a tiny ad in the personal column at the back of Time Out. It felt incredibly transgressive. The replies came in a big brown envelope at the end of the week. Some had photos of men in woolly jumpers. Some were 20 stone. Some looked nice. There were accountants and students, film buffs and some just in the buff. And I began dating. How naive and serious I was then, wearing my heart on my sleeve, hoping to find an attractive, kind man who’d share my interests and wanted to fall in love.

Over the years I’ve had relationships. Often with men I met in real life and not through the personal ads. Too many were artists. Fun and feckless, for whom I was ok girlfriend material. But heaven forfend that they should get seriously involved with a single mother of three young children. And I did fall in love and thought I’d found my forever relationship. He was an academic. Fun, gregarious, generous. But it took about two and a half years before I registered the narcissism, the binge drinking and then he dumped me, presumably because I’d noticed these things and it wasn’t quite so fun anymore. Still, I was broken hearted.

I haven’t lived like a nun since then. But I’ve been much more wary. It’s not thrills and spills I’m after, a bit of slap and tickle, but a real organic relationship. Someone to share the other half of a bottle of red on a Saturday night as we watch a foreign movie on Netflix. Someone to read with in bed, as well as make tender love. Someone to travel and walk with, to share wit and humour, to mooch round markets and go to art galleries. To visit foreign cities. A companion, a mate. I’m not looking for perfect. Just warm, smart and attractive to me. Someone with a bit of empathy, someone who wants to share. And there’s the rub. Commitment is a dirty word and I’m no longer interested in one night stands. Recently someone got in touch asking me if I was up for a threesome – and he wasn’t talking card games. And here’s the thing. I think he thought I would be grateful.

Recently I’ve met some quite pleasant men. But I’m tired of them turning round after an enjoyable evening and telling me that I’m a fascinating women and that they’d really love to stay in touch as friends but that they ‘can’t see it going any further’. Which, I’ve come to realise, is code for: ‘you’re too old’. But I am not there to entertain. To talk about the Man Booker shortlist or the Turner Prize and be ever-so-interesting, while they go off to find their bit of nookie elsewhere.

So okay – deep breath – it will now be on public record – I turned 70 last birthday. And for most men on the dating scene it’s as if I should just pull up the draw bridge or crawl under a stone and die. It’s as though my age is a personal insult. It brings to mind the writer Anthony Powell’s observation on ageing that “I feel increasingly punished for a crime I didn’t commit.” My last and most recent date was with a highly self-obsessed lawyer, who was the one to contact me and insisted that I meet him immediately in a place of his choosing. Then who, despite us coincidentally knowing a number of people in common, told me I should ‘apologise’ for my age because I’d fudged the issue.

Why are these men so hooked on age? I may not be Angelina Jolie but neither am I the back end of a bus. I do Pilates and yoga three times a week with a group of wonderful, super fit people, many who are older than I am. I recently did a 15 mile country walk with my son. I travel. I write. I do voluntary work. I have interesting friends. I have five grandchildren. I am loyal to those I love who love me. I wear nice clothes and know how to eat without dribbling. I’m not ready to be put out to grass. And yet? And yet?

I don’t think I’m alone. I know so many sharp-witted, fit, clever, attractive single women in their 60s, 70s and even 80s. But the men? They’re not so hot and the ones that are see themselves as being at a premium and are of the opinion that they’re only as old as the young flesh they feel. This is a new phenomenon, this problem of vital baby boomer women who won’t lie down quietly, who are stylish and fit and not ready for elasticated-waist trousers and Zimmer frames. Men of our age, it seems, want a quiet life. Someone to flatter or mummy them. Someone to boost their egos or pick up their socks. What they don’t want is opinions, or women of their own age who remind them of their mortality. And before you ask, yes, I have dated younger men. And yes, it was very nice in its way. But I’m looking for the forever relationship now, and someone 10 or 15 years younger is not going to stay the course.

So bye bye fuck-me shoes. I’m going to get out my walking boots and take to the hills. There are grandchildren to hug and that fourth novel demanding to be finished. So watch this space.

Jock McFadyen

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

Jock McFadyen is late for our meeting in the Academicians Room at the RA. Very late. He was stuck on a bus. I’ve known him for more than 20 years and figure that if we don’t have time to talk now we can always meet up in his home in Bethnal Green where, for ages, a group of us met to watch films on a Friday night.

We’re here to discuss his selection as the overall coordinator of the 251st  RA Summer Exhibition. It’s an honour. A mark of having arrived in the hierarchy of the art world. But Jock is a maverick. Charming, mercurial, opinionated, witty, well read and a highly accomplished, original painter. A true Glaswegian, he has a wild streak. The RA may be in for a surprise. In Jock’s company sometimes you just have to hang in there for the ride.

“So, what’s going to be your theme”?

“Well, I want to show art that describes the world”. He mentions our mutual friend Trevor Sutton. “He paints very beautiful abstract paintings but they’re based on landscapes in Ireland. That’s what I mean. They’re engaged but absolutely concerned with paint. I hope to include John Davies’ piece that was shown at the Turner Contemporary and work by Kenny Hunter. I can’t name all the artists yet as they haven’t confirmed. But I’m interested in texture and form. People think I’m a figurative artist but I see myself as an abstract painter, someone concerned first and foremost with paint.”
Jock McFadyen RA with Sue Hubbard January 2019

Jock McFadyen RA with Sue Hubbard January 2019

And what does he want the Summer Exhibition to look like? After all Michael Craig-Martin painted the walls pink. “Well I’m going to have a menagerie. There’s a tradition of animal painting from Stubbs to the more amateur cat paintings traditionally submitted to the RA summer show. Our interest in depicting animals goes back to our first image-making in caves. But the truth is that you don’t know what is going to be submitted and it’s a committee decision. This year’s committee is made up of: Stephen Chambers, Anne Desmet, Hughie O’Donoghue, Spencer de Grey, Timothy Hyman, Barbra Rae, Bob and Roberta Smith, the Wilson twins and Richard Wilson, so it’s quite a cross section.”

I ask about the popular appeal of the Summer Exhibition. “Well,” he says controversially, “I don’t believe in art that reaches out, that talks down or that it’s the artist’s job to make art accessible. I think it’s our job to do what we do and seduce viewers into being interested. Back in Turner’s day it was all professional artists. It’s a difficult concept isn’t it? I don’t like amateur art. Being an artist is a job. You don’t have amateur architects or brain surgeons. Art is, as I think Clement Greenberg suggested, essentially a metropolitan activity. You need to be connected to the debates and the arguments if you are serious.”

“But”, I ask, “what about exceptions such as Alfred Wallis?”  “Well Wallis is wonderful. I suppose that’s what we are hoping for. The exceptions.”

Born in Paisely in 1950. His trajectory to Royal Academician was not a straight path. He was a bad boy, fearless and contrary. His grandfather, who was a boat builder, drew cartoons in his spare time. His father was a draughtsman in the Clyde shipyards and taught him to draw”. Both a Glaswegian edge and a visual curiousity are intrinsic to who he is both as a man and an artist.

He was rebellious at school. In those days art schools offered pre-foundation courses which you could start when you were 16. “Listen, if you say to a teenager – would you rather go to school in uniform or to art school with long hair, Cuban heels and motorbikes? – well it’s not much of a contest is it?”

When he was 15 his father got a job with the Michelin tyre factory in Stoke-on-Trent. Art school in Newcastle-under-Lyme was followed by a motor cycle accident. When he got better the course had changed to typography and graphic design. He wasn’t interested. “I wanted to make life drawings. So I made an effigy of the principal and set it on fire and was thrown out. I had a black mark on my file for ages that counted against me when I tried to apply for other courses. And my Dad went ballistic. He thought it was rubbish that I was doing art anyway: ‘All you do is sit around painting women’s tits.’ ‘All you do is make tyres, I replied.’” He also managed to fit in a youthful marriage, have a son and work as a dustman, before finally making it to Chelsea Art School where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Anish Kapoor, Helen Chadwick, Shirazeh Houshiary and Christopher Le Brun.

But even being at Chelsea was not straight forward. He was living in a north London squat with his first wife. “It was really vile. Counterculture turned bad – Hells Angels, junkies, people riding motorcycles in an out. And at art school then, to be a painter meant you had to be an abstract painter. Figurative painting was an embarrassment.” But in 1978, after he’d finished, things started to go well. He had his first show – jointly with Peter Smith – at the Acme Gallery, then the following year got a dealer, Blond Fine Art.

It was when he had his solo show in 1991 at the Imperial War Museum, in response to the collapse of that Berlin wall, that I first met him. Already known for his portraits of the sad, the mad and the bad of East London he was the unanimous choice of the Artistic Records Committee to record that historic moment. The gritty images of the crippled accordion player, the woman in the puppet booth, the apparently three-legged prostitute in Savignyplatz took my breath away with their hard-hitting poignancy. Though I remember him saying with a typical forthrightness that he wasn’t interested in “wanky, sentimental, political-prisoner kind of art.” And he was, I realised, a wonderfully original sculptor. The rag-bag of human destitution that made up his cast of characters in Procession were put together from his old clothes and those found in East End markets, which he’d covered in wax and plaster. Slightly smaller than life-size this trail of somnambulant dwarfs might have escaped straight from Brecht’s Mother Courage.

Jock McFadyen  Kill Matthew Barney 2007-2008

He’s also a strong landscape painter – if landscapes you can call them. There is nothing of the pastural tradition about them. He paints what’s around him and has become known as a painter of the East End. But he dislikes being labelled a social commentator – he’s too much of a contrarian for that. Rather, like his friend the writer Ian Sinclair, he’s a chronicler of the down-and-out, the skinhead, as well as the Hawksmoor church and stray urban dog. He also paints remote Scottish islands, motorways and bits of road near his house in northern France. What he chooses is never the picturesque but rather the incidental, the marginal, the thing that until he paints it most people won’t even have noticed. In 2010 he started his After Sickert series: small erotic scenes charged with some of the shock of Sickert’s original paintings. He also designed sets and costumes for Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s last ballet The Judas Tree at The Royal Opera House.

It’s obvious that he’s enjoying his well-earned success but he’s critical of the commercialisation of the art world. Not that he is a purist. He needs to sell but, as he says, for his generation of art students what counted was critical rigour not ‘are we going to sell to Saatchi?’ I suggest that this commercialisation of art is dangerous, that it skews what is made. That it can stifle originality. He agrees there’s a hazard that art becomes of ‘no consequence’, that there’s a move to make it all too crowd-pleasing and curator-friendly. He expresses worries about the singularity of the art market and how it pushes artists to make signature works that sell.

Jock McFadyen is an artist who is not easy to pigeon hole. His work is eclectic, singular and raw. It reflects both the edginess of ‘real’ life and his intellectual concerns about the possibilities and fluidity of paint. He’s a rebel yet a conservative. A detail highlighted by the fact that he’s shown work in his East End Acme studio and at Wapping Project, as well as The National Gallery, Agnews and the Fine Art Society. He is that rare thing in the modern art world – an original. His vision is unique, idiosyncratic and muscular and reveals a detached humanity that throws light on the liminal and marginal aspects of the world we inhabit, which so many of us miss. As his friend Ian Sinclair says: ”the world is always static in the sense that you’re a mass observer and you can’t afford to care whether people are busy or not. You are a witness.”

This year’s Summer Exhibition is lucky to have Jock McFadyen to act as singular and fearless witness. It promises to be an interesting show.

A monograph on Jock McFadyen is due from the RA in May 2019.

Published in Artlyst

George Shaw

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

The English painter has long taken inspiration from the Midlands estate where he grew up, conjuring visions of comfort, nostalgia and, more recently, right-wing rumblings. Shaw talks to Sue Hubbard about his father, life at the Royal College in the early nineties, and the place he will always know as home.

Scenes from The Passion: The Black Prince, 1999. Courtesy Anthony Wilkinson Gallery

I last saw George Shaw in the small, crowded upstairs room of a Soho pub where he was singing the Morecambe and Wise signature tune, Bring Me Sunshine, while his friend accompanied him on the ukulele. We were there for the Yale University Press book launch of A Corner of a Foreign Field, a big and learned tome on Shaw’s work. The title comes from Rupert Brooke’s famous poem The Soldier. Although Brooke never actually saw active service in the First World War, his lines: “If I should die, think only this of me/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England” are the patriotic outburst of a young man contemplating the slaughter of tens of thousands in a cruel and pointless war. Since then, his words have acquired a more flag-waving, UKIP-esque resonance. It’s these complex shifts in English life that Shaw mirrors with a forensic clarity, tinged with tender romanticism, in his meticulous paintings.

Mum’s, 2018

Today, we’re meeting in Soho House and he’s dressed more like a prosperous young farmer from the West Country where he lives—in a smart tweed jacket and waistcoat—than a cutting-edge artist. Sitting by the real wood fire we both mention that the newly decorated room retains something of the old Soho. History, nostalgia and authenticity are important to Shaw. For more than twenty years he’s walked round the same small corner of the Tile Hill council estate in the Midlands where he grew up, taking photographs to create an encyclopaedic reference library that he uses for his paintings.

For Proust it was a madeleine dipped in lime tea. For Shaw it’s Tile Hill Estate’s run down terraced houses with their sagging net curtains, the playing fields and lock-up garages where bored youngsters hang out to kick footballs, sniff glue and look at girlie magazines that bring his childhood gushing back. But his is not a bleak dystopian vision, rather it’s a nostalgic, elegiac image of an all but vanished England, “a dream of Britain, an island I have come to know as a landscape of ghosts and haunted houses, of fair to middling weather and stony prehistory but also a backdrop for injustice, criminality, humour, suspicion and sparse grace.”

The Old Religons, 2017

It is, he says, “a homely and unsettling vision”. This contradiction between the homely, what Freud called (heimlich) and the uncanny (unheimlich) is central to Shaw’s paintings. Although he left Tile Hill at eighteen (his mother still lives there) to study art, the estate remains the emotional core and catalyst at the centre of his work.

“As an artist you can’t just rely on style. You have to rely on intention but it’s hard. As Beckett knew there’s a lot of potential for failure but you just have to keep going”

What, I ask, did it feel like to grow up there during the Thatcher years that badly disrupted the cohesion of such communities? His dad, he tells me, worked in a storeroom of the Standard-Triumph Motor Company in Cranley Coventry, which was swallowed up by British Leyland in 1968 and then closed in 1980. After that he never worked again. But far from giving up, he took the opportunity to educate himself.

“My dad read Pinter and Beckett. We watched TV together on our little black-and-white telly, discussed the kitchen sink dramas, and endless repeats of Hammer horror films. He was a clever man, my dad, aspirational, but he had few opportunities. His motto was ‘question everything’. Mum was Irish and worked in the local pub and saw education as a way out. My sister learned Latin and somehow Dad bought us a piano. He saved money in a box file. Put away £5 a week for Christmas. He’d start doing that the previous year. We always had presents.”

Ash Wednesday: 8.00am, 2004/5

And school? “Well I suppose I was a bit weird but I was never ostracized. There was a lot of violence around then with skinheads and racism around Coventry. But I was mostly up in my bedroom reading. It was a bit of a disappointment, then, when I eventually got to the Royal College expecting this rich cultural life to find that no one much read. My dissertation was on the body in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. Before that—in 86 to 89—I was doing my BA in Sheffield. I’d been painting in my room since I was ten, life drawing since I was eleven. After my degree I got a job as a medical illustrator at Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School, because I could use a video camera. Then I moved back to Sheffield, worked as a secondary school teacher, teaching children with learning difficulties and had a small studio. Loads of the people there were applying for the Royal College. So I thought, I’ll have a go. I can do that. Though the work I was doing then was closer to Rauschenberg than anything I do now.”

The Man Who Would Be King, 2017

From an early age Shaw had a natural talent for drawing (his uncle was a gifted self-taught artist). At the time the Royal College of Art was a bastion of painting under Paul Huxley, but he didn’t want to offer Shaw a place, saying he’d be depriving kids of a good special needs teacher. Shaw’s response was to demand “a fucking place”. He got in. This allowed him, even as the 1997 Sensation opened at the Royal Academy showcasing the slightly older YBAs, to follow his own trajectory. It was at the Royal College that he embraced Tile Hill as his core subject. At first he’d treat the graffiti he found on a garage door, say, in a gestural way. Then someone suggested he just paint the door instead of pretending to be an expressionist.

The result has been an extraordinary body of work famously created with Hombrol paints—enamel paints traditionally used for painting model airplanes—which has become a love song to the suburbs. An acute observer of the shades of English life, he’s made poetry from the council estate and odes from playgrounds and wasteland. This is a world where the slow erasure of the pastural dream has gone almost unnoticed, as woods become liminal spaces between suburb and country, between then and now. His sylvan scenes from the Passion series resonate with the romanticism of Caspar David Friederich. While others from the same series, such as The Blossomiest Blossom, reflect the spirituality of his lapsed Catholicism. His rows of modest houses also speak of loss. Of a post-war utopianism, expressed through architecture, that believed in social change and a fairer society.

“There’s a way that this place is always home. I had a happy childhood there. I remember watching the play A Voyage Round My Father with my dad in our living room”

There is a strong desire to create narratives from Shaw’s work. Yet the most recent story, suggested by the Cross of Saint George flag sagging in one of the windows of the estate, is a tougher and more despairing one than the warmth expressed in his earlier more wistful paintings. This is the tale of the hubris and xenophobia that is Brexit. Entitled The Man Who Would Be King, the painting resonates with a sense of collapse and spiritual dilapidation.

Scenes from the Passion: The Blossomiest Blossom, 2001

“When I went back to the estate,” he says, “I wondered what I was doing there. I thought I had nothing more to say. I resisted doing the flag paintings for a year. I worried I might seem condescending or even right-wing. Might be criticized for living in a nice house on Dartmoor and painting a shithole. But there’s a way that this place is always home. I had a happy childhood there. I remember watching the play A Voyage Round My Father with my dad in our living room. It’s a strong memory. I suppose we’re all continually looking for our home, even though we know ‘the past is another country’. Still, we try and find the unfamiliar though the familiar. As an artist you can’t just rely on style. You have to rely on intention but it’s hard. As Beckett knew there’s a lot of potential for failure but you just have to keep going. I think it was Novalis who said, ‘Philosophy is really home sickness: the urge to be at home everywhere.’” The same might be said of George Shaw’s paintings.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Deep in the Woods with
Cathy de Monchaux

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“Art is never about just one thing. Good art can be read on many levels.” Sue Hubbard visits Cathy de Monchaux in her studio again after twenty years—and discovers a change in the British artist’s practice from the “profane and pagan” to her latest series of twisted woodland works.

Studio portrait by Anthony Lycett

The last time I visited the sculptor Cathy de Monchaux she was holed up in her huge Peckham studio. “Was it really twenty years ago that you came to see me there?” she asks. “The commute was doing my head in, so I left,” she says bringing me her brand new spotty Bengal kitten to admire, which immediately starts attacking my shoe laces.  She works, now, in her home in Hoxton Street and as the kitten does battle with my shoes, her assistant sits twisting bunches of copper fuse-wire into tree-like shapes at the kitchen table. Downstairs in her studio, where the walls are covered with large charcoal drawings and sculptural maquettes, is a big double bed covered with rich velvet drapes. “I love sleeping down here. If I’m worrying about a piece of work I can get up in the middle of the night and deal with it.”

It was soon after we met that her 1997 one person show at the Whitechapel led to a nomination for the Turner Prize. Although at Goldsmith’s during the 1980s, the same time as Damien Hirst, she was never really part of the YBA gang. Leather straps, brass and red velvet were bolted, riveted and lashed together into uncanny, erotically charged objects that borrowed their imagery equally from fairytales and the Marquis de Sade. With their spikes and festoons of black ribbons they tapped into feminist debates, at the time, around female eroticism. Embracing the burlesque they equally suggested a sense of saint-like  religious rapture, with a nod to Georges Bataille’s view that: “Of all problems eroticism is the most mysterious.” Both a celebration of female sexuality, and a mirror of repressed and guilty female desire, her sculpture was profane and pagan, Gothic and theatrical, and touched on what Kristeva called the abject. Or to use the words of the poet WB Yeats, there was “a terrible beauty” about her work.

Raft, 2016

Now, as we sit and munch on our Pret sandwiches, I ask if there’s been a change in her practice, whether she’s left behind feminist debates about the body. “Well,” she replies, “as human beings and artists we change and move on. My imperatives at fifty-eight are different to those of twenty years ago. When I was younger it was an optimistic time. As women artists we thought we had an open space to do whatever we wanted. That it would all be fine. I was like, ‘Bring it on’. But twenty/thirty years later it just doesn’t feel good enough. We haven’t really arrived. Look at the #MeToo campaign. In many ways to be a feminist now is to be marginalized and side lined. And galleries have changed. I’m not represented by anyone now. I work mostly for commissions. When you’re young you’re establishing a reputation. There’s a commercial imperative to keep making work but some of my pieces take years. I’m happier now that I can work at my own pace, supported by some wonderful collectors. In many ways it gives me greater creative freedom. It’s a choice I’ve made. It’s harder and harder to be true to the work.”

“When I was younger it was an optimistic time. As women artists we thought we had an open space to do whatever we wanted”

Did she feel, I ask, that having become a mother to her son had affected her career? She thinks for a long time before answering. “I think it probably did,” she says. “It’s complicated all that juggling between work and picking up from school. I had an abortion at thirty-two, which affected me much more deeply than I could have imagined. When I got pregnant again, accidentally at thirty-nine, I knew there was no question about having the child. As to my work? Well I think the process, the rhythm, has become slower. It’s not about chasing shows any more, of producing one piece after another for a gallery.”

Looking around the studio I detect a shift from the sexualized body of her early sculptures to an exploration of the unconscious imagination. Forests abound and its not hard to see in her sculptural panoramas references to Paola Uccello’s The Hunt in the Forest, and to Shakespeare’s forest of Arden.

Migration, 2016

It’s no accident that traditionally so many fairytale characters found themselves lost in forests. At one time Europe was covered by dense woodland that presented all sorts of unknown dangers. In more modern times the forest has provided symbolism to the likes of Jung, Freud and Bruno Bettelheim to explore what lies lurking in the unconscious. Cathy de Monchaux’s forests of painted copper wire, twisted into gnarled and knotted trees, are full of half-hidden unicorns. Each is handmade and placed within these dense trees. They allude to the dreams we aspire to and can’t reach, the chivalry of mediaeval hunts and tapestries, even My Little Pony. “Art is never about just one thing,” she insists. “Good art can be read on many levels.” She also makes the point that these are threatening places that people have to cross. This very night, she reminds me, there’ll be people in Europe waiting on the edge of a forest somewhere, trying to cross a border, running for their lives, running from hunters and dogs. All these people must have their own dreams of unicorns.

The copper wire she uses for her scenarios is so thin and flexible that it’s almost like drawing in 3D. It allows her to arrange the trees however she wants and for them to stay put. Her work inhabits a territory that’s hard to define, somewhere between sculpture, drawing, painting and even needlework. In earlier scenarios she was using small female figures instead of unicorns. With their lack of features and rotund bellies they stand in rows like a female army, chthonic goddess rooted to the earth through their fecundity.

Photo by Sue Hubbard

More recently she’s been embroiled with the Guardian about headline that described her new work Beyond Thinking (the title is taken from Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay “A Room of One’s Own”), commissioned for Newham College to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the first degree ceremony for women graduates, as a “two-storey vulva”, a description which she and the college strenuously deny. “It so lacks insight and sensitivity. The college is a place of learning for women from all sort of backgrounds and faiths and it’s just an inappropriate and lazy description,” she says angrily. This towering artwork that runs up the side of the new college extension resembles, if it resembles any body part at all, a spine or back-bone, a much more apposite image for the struggles of women attempting to achieve equality through education.

“Art is never about just one thing. Good art can be read on many levels”

Cast in bronze it’s made of individual sections that reach up the side of the building. Far from being a series of vulvae, they show tiny female figures emerging from a thicket of branches laid across the pages of a book. It’s as if these tiny women are coming into being, emerging into visibility through language and learning. Forests are symbols of transformation. Boundaries between what is human and animal, plants and trees, the physical and the metaphorical world. As Duke Senior says at the beginning of Act II in As You Like It, “Our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”

Looking back over the development of De Monchaux’s work these twenty years or so, what I see is an artist who has continued to expand her vocabulary from the young woman concerned with the aesthetic resonances and politics of female sexuality, to one who is discovering new ways of being, delving deeper into the creative unconscious to explore the ongoing processes of birth, creativity, life and death.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Christian Marclay
The Clock at Tate Modern

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

“Time present and time past”, as T.S. Eliot famously claimed in Burnt Norton, are “both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.” So, “If all time is eternally present”, he suggests “All time is irredeemable.” These celebrated lines from The Four Quartets might well describe The Clock by the American Swiss artist, Christian Marclay, a work that is both a cinematic feat and a philosophical conundrum. A 24 hour montage, The Clock is made up of thousands of carefully researched moments of cinematic and television history spliced together to depict the passage of time. Functioning as a real timepiece, it marks the actual flow of time over a 24 hour period and is synchronised to function in whatever time-zone it’s shown.

Marclay, originally, developed the idea whilst working on his 2005 piece Screen Play. With the support of the London-based White Cub gallery he assembled a team to engage in the herculean task of finding relevant footage, which he edited over the course of three years. Six people watched DVDs and searched for scenes that contained clocks or watches. Marclay, himself, was often unfamiliar with the source works so Google spreadsheets were used to record the copious clips. Originally, he wanted to include more outlandish episodes but began to worry that it would be too exhausting to watch over a long period. Instead he chose to focus on incidental moments. His head assistant, Paul Anton Smith, has said that Marclay wanted scenes that were “banal and plain but visually interesting.” One assistant who focused too much on violent scenes was fired, while those remaining began to specialise in particular film genres. The final version contains around 12,000 films clips.

First shown at White Cube’s London gallery in 2010, The Clock won the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice biennale. In his acceptance speech Marclay ironically invoked Andy Warhol, thanking the judges for “giving The Clock its 15 minutes”. It’s six editions have been purchased by major museums and attracted a widespread following. It’s now being shown at Tate Modern, in the Blavatnick Building extension. Marclay declined to show it in the Turbine Hall because of poor acoustics. This space is equipped with comfortable soft sofas so that viewers are able come and go. Marclay didn’t want conventional cinema seating where those getting up and leaving would disturb other members of the audience. An inherent element of the work is the decision made by individual viewers as to how long he or she will stay. Once there, it’s certainly addictive. Though made of fragments that have no apparent narrative relationship, there’s a sense of tension and an irrational desire to find out what ‘happens next’.
Christian Ernest Maracly, to give him his full name, was born in San Rafael in California in 1955 but grew up in Switzerland where he attend the École Supérieure d’Art Visuel in Geneva. (It’s perhaps not fanciful to suggest a youth spent in the country that Orson Wells famously proclaimed had produced nothing but the cuckoo clock during five hundred years of democracy, might have had some influence on his subject matter). After Geneva, Marcaly continued his education at the Massachusetts College of Art and Cooper Union in New York, where he spent his student years exploring noise music, influenced by the neo-Dadaist movement and artists such as Joseph Beuys and Yoko Ono. He also listened – if that’s the right word – to John Cage, borrowing his philosophy “that if you listen, and keep listening, eventually you find something interesting.” A pioneer of the use of turntables and gramophone records – often found in junk and thrift shops –  as musical instruments to create sound collages, Marclay was described by the critic Thom Jurek as the “unwitting inventor of turntabalism.”

These anarchic works allowed Marclay to explore human perception and what it means to experience sensory data. Starting out, as so many artists have done, as a musician, in the band Mon Ton Son, he would often play records starting from the middle, breaking them and gluing them back together to disrupt harmonies and create a stream of noise that dissolved into disorder. Melding different technical media – sound, photography, film and video – as well as a range of artistic references, he created rich fusions that synthesised into more than the sum of their separate parts.  In the spirit of those more utopian times, Marcaly’s interest was in ‘pure art’ that had no obvious commercial value. In The Clock he explores – just as Eliot did in the Four Quartets (in a different medium and a different century) –  how time is experienced by the human mind. What it feels like to be caught in its relentless, irredeemable stream. Time is shown to be both an abstract construct, yet also integral to our diurnal and nocturnal rhythms, to our biology and sense of what means to grow older.

The research is brilliant and one wonders how his team managed to find so many clips that show exactly the right time. Though drawn mostly from mainstream cinema, there’s an obvious influence of experimental filmmakers of the 60s and 70s who played around with structure and found footage. A great deal of the pleasure to be had in watching The Clock is to be found in ticking off a list of familiar films. Great for cinema buffs. There’s also the enjoyment of recognising actors, especially in their youthful incarnations. The young Robert Redford, Tom Courtney, Jack Nicholson and Sidney Poitier, for instance. And it was particularly poignant to see the late Robin Williams but impossible not to see Bill Crosby through the lens of recent sexual allegations. There are also some really funny moments. Peter Sellers waking in a hotel room in a bright red eye mask and hair net, is a gem. As is what, I assume, to be a Buster Keaton clip of some slapstick goings on on a vertiginous clock tower.

There are iconic clocks everywhere. Big Ben and the Waterloo station clock, as well as an array of period wristwatches, early digital models, grandfather clocks and pocket watches. The passing of time is also experienced though forgotten period details. Things seen through a glass darkly: a 50s watchstrap or a Blackberry. Who uses those short-lived status symbols now? And throughout there’s the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, along with ashtrays full of stubs. Another aspect of time and memory is that we forget old habits.

I went to see The Clock at and was surprised at how many people were in bed. Between and characters appear to be travelling on planes, trains and in cars. Then, as the evening sets in, they eat dinner, become involved in shootouts and attend parties. Mid-evening they go to the theatre and shows. Although I wasn’t watching at midnight, I gather Orson Welles is impaled on a clock tower in The Stranger, and Big Ben explodes in V for Vendetta.  After that people begin to drift into bars to drink and search for intimacy. Others are annoyed at being woken up by the phone. In the small hours, unsurprisingly, many are sleeping. While between 3 am. and 5 am there are a number of dream sequences. Then around 7 am. people begin to wake up and from 9 am. to midday eat breakfast and have morning sex. As noon approaches, the bells ring out in High Noon.

As I sat in the dark I found myself constantly checking my watch to see if it was in sync with what was happening on the screen. I was also aware that it’s only been in the last 100 years – since the beginning of cinema – that we are able to look back and see life as it actually was; taking place in real time. Before the invention of film people had to rely on memories and stories. Now we can experience the past in all its incidental details, just as it was before we existed.

The Clock is an epic feat that both reveals and hides the mysteries of time. Watching it felt like being on a train and staring out of the window as the world flashes by and you catch segments and incidents of unknown lives, fleeting glimpses of small mini-dramas without ever knowing how they end. It is a masterful work that reminds us that life is not a linear narrative but a series of broken fragments. Not everything has a beginning, a middle and a clear end.

Published in The London Magazine

Liliane Lijn’s
Seductive Psychic Drama

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“My feelings about science—in particular the physics of light and matter—are that they are pure poetry.” American artist Liliane Lijn discusses the intersection of language, science and art with Sue Hubbard.

Liliane Lijn, Striped Koans, 1995-7 © the artist

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, let there be light and there was light.

No, I haven’t gone all religious. But as a metaphor for knowledge over dark ignorance, for intellectual enlightenment over a lack of curiosity, for the development of language out of silence, you can’t beat this old quote from Genesis. It also symbolizes the spirit of Liliane Lijn’s eclectic work which, for more than forty years, has explored our phenomenological relationship with the world we inhabit and our sense of being and becoming. From the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, from the human body to the physical properties of light, she investigates, through her far-reaching visual language, what it means to be sentient and alive.

Liliane Lijn, Get Rid of Government Time, 1962 © the artist

I first came across her work more than twenty years ago when I was writing for Time Out and discovered her kinetic Poem Machines (1962-8) that pioneered the use of rotating poetic texts, initially cut from newspapers and Letraset. I can’t remember, now, where I first saw them. Simply the sense of excitement that I felt as a young female poet discovering a woman artist working at the intersection of the visual arts and language, myth and philosophy and the hitherto largely male world of technology and science. Since then I’ve got to know her and her diverse body of work. The early expressive paintings and explorations of the body, the kinetic sculptures and projects that involve complex physics, often undertaken in collaboration with top scientists.

Liliane Lijn, Am I Who, 2010, © the artist

Today I’ve come to her large elegant studio in north London. It’s a lovely space. Full of books and sculptures and, this afternoon, flooded with balmy late September light. Her assistant works away quietly in a far corner, filing and doing essential paperwork, while we talk. Well-read and with a wide-ranging intellect, Liliane Lijn was born in the US in 1939, four months after her mother and grandmother, of Russian Jewish descent, arrived from Antwerp.
“My feelings about science—in particular the physics of light and matter—are that they are pure poetry”

Her parents’ early divorce lead to school in Switzerland where she became fluent in both French and Italian, leading her to study archaeology at the Sorbonne and art history at the École du Louvre. But these academic subjects were soon given up in order to pursue the life of an artist. In Paris she met André Breton, the French poet and surrealist, and later, back in early sixties New York, she moved in the same hip circles as beat poets such as William Burroughs and Gregory Corso.

She has, she says, always been interested in language and writing but that changing languages from English to Italian interrupted the flow somewhat. This, she suggests, might be why she chose to express herself primarily visually. Though she sees the disciplines of writing, visual art and science as permeable. Moving between them creates a dialogue, a way of asking questions and investigating the world. “My feelings about science—in particular the physics of light and matter—are that they are pure poetry,” she tells me.

Lilian Lijn, Mars Koan, 2008 © the artist, photo Richard Wilding 2015

As we sit in the autumn sun at a glass table held up by legs made from her multi-coloured cones, she describes her work as “a constant dialogue between opposites. My sculptures use light and motion to transform themselves from solid to void, opaque to transparent, formal to organic.”  She’s just come back from Athens, she tells me, where she’s been installing Cosmic Dramas at Rodeo Gallery. It’s an interesting and timely revisiting of her early work. The bold choreography of the Conjunctions of the Opposites: The Woman of War (1985) and The Lady of Wild Things (1983)—two looming kinetic “figures” that stand more than three meters high and use LED light, smoke, lasers and brushes—touch on ancient ideas of the female goddess, though constructed with modern industrial materials. Although made at different times, she doesn’t think of them as set in opposition.

Liliane Lijn, Woman of War, 1986 © the artist

They are, she explains, neither male nor female, but cosmogenic gods. Hermaphrodites that are bisexual in nature and through whom we experience the strongest and most striking opposites. When set side by side they create a seductive psychic drama. “They’re spiritual archetypes. Powerful, angry sexual pieces. The Woman of War sings a bold, audacious song. A song, that when I wrote it, seemed to come into my mouth straight from the earth. The idea came to me when I was a young student in Paris and living on the sixth floor in an empty apartment which I was using as a studio. Standing on the balcony one evening I had a vision. The sky was lit by an extraordinary sunset and I saw the image of a goddess in the clouds. Woman of War grew from an attempt to reconstruct that experience.”

Liliane Lijn, Lady of the Wild Things, 1983 © the artist

I ask if she thinks feminism has changed since the works were made, at a time when women were looking for new narrative models to describe their lives. Did she think that they could be easily understood by the #MeToo generation? Populism, she says, concerns her. There’s a sense of dumbing down. A need to jump on bandwagons. She feels people are afraid of complexity and ambiguity. But, she adds, it was interesting that so many of those who came to the opening in Athens were young. “They were excited. They seemed to get it. And it wasn’t just young women but also men.”

Anyway, she insists, she was never a typical feminist. What interested her was the intellectual pursuit of subjects seen as predominantly male. Her work in the late 1970s to the 1990s was largely based around the body and feminine archetypes: The Wife, The Medusa, The Lady as Bird, The Darkness. But then there was a pivotal moment when she decided to stop making art that was autobiographical and expressive, to move outside and dematerialize the body. That’s when she began working with light. Her approach to the use of light is, she suggests, less architectural, less mechanistic than that of many male artists. For her light is liquid and has an almost anthropomorphic quality.

Liliane Lijn, Heavenly Fragments, 2008 © the artist

This summer she’s been busy working on Sunstar, a large-scale daytime “spectroheliostat” art installation sited on the top of the historic 150-Foot Solar Tower on Mount Wilson in Pasadena. The work is a collaboration with the astrophysicist John Vallerga. A beam of diffracted sunlight is projected onto the Los Angeles landscape, making the solar spectrum visible at specific locations.  “The spectrum is broken down. It creates a single incredibly bright point of light. It’s very small, very brilliant like a star or a jewel that can be seen in the day.
“What interests me is scientific discovery. What it means to be alive, to live in this world”

Normally we can’t really look at the sun. But this allows us to look at a tiny fragment of it. Would she have liked to study physics? “No, I don’t think so. I like what I am. I have a lot of freedom. But I’ve read up about it over the years. You can only get to the kernel of things through physics and chemistry.” They help her, she continues, explore the issues that really interest her such as: what is essence, what is something’s essential character. “I’m not really interested in finance or politics. That’s all such a mess, anyway, and there’s little as individuals that we can do to influence them. What interests me is scientific discovery. What it means to be alive, to live in this world.”

Converse Column, new public art commission, University of Leeds, autumn 2018

Recently she was commissioned by Leeds University to create a nine-metre high revolving drum of transforming words, Converse Column, which will be sited next to the university’s new design centre, Nexus, that opens this autumn. Words and phrases were suggested by students around the concepts of knowledge and interconnection. These were then cut up so that the text and light used becomes fluid in these spinning drums. The aim is to create a work that provokes questions and encourages debate. She was inspired by the concept of Nexus. “So much of my work is about just that: connections relation, conjunction, invention and research.”

As we talk I can detect no signs that Liliane Lijn is slowing down in her eighth decade. There’s a youthful, restless intellectual hunger about her that continues to spur her on to make original eclectic work—work that challenges the very paradigms of what constitutes art.

Published in Elephant Magazine

What Is the point of the Turner Prize?

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

It’s that time of year again. As the Turner Prize exhibition opens at Tate Britain with four film works, Sue Hubbard asks “Is there any validity in awarding a prize for art?”

Charlotte Prodger, BRIDGIT, 2016. All images courtesy of the artist, Koppe Astner, Glasgow and Hollybush Gardens, London

It’s that time of year again. Our summer suntans are fading, the nights are drawing in and the leaves are turning. The children have gone back to school and the art world has that beginning of term feel. There’s the jamboree that is Frieze art fair, as well as the opening of the Turner Prize exhibition. Two events that have become as synonymous with autumn as bonfire night. But what exactly is the Turner Prize for? And is there any validity in awarding a prize for art? Imagine a year when Picasso, Braque and Modigliani were all competing. Who would you give the prize to then? How can a prize evaluate unique creative voices, one above the other?
“In a world of the social media we seem to crave shock and awe and soundbites”

But prizes have become a ubiquitous feature of modern cultural life, from the Man Booker Prize and the National Poetry Competition to the John Moores Painting Prize. But art isn’t an Olympic sport where timed performances or superior physical prowess will give you a clear winner. In many ways these prizes distort the cultural landscape, simply promoting flavour of the month by curators who, themselves, are trying to find a place in the limelight. In a world of social media we seem to crave shock and awe and soundbites.

Charlotte Prodger. Portrait, 2017. Photography © Emile Holba 2018

First awarded in 1985, the prize, named after the English painter JMW Turner was founded by a group called the Patrons of New Art under the directorship of Alan Bowness. Their aim was to encourage a wider interest in contemporary art and assist Tate in the acquisition of new works. Between 1991 and 2016 only artists under fifty were eligible, but this flirtation with youth was removed in 2017. Usually held at Tate Britain, the prize has tried to counter criticisms of metropolitanism by being staged in other UK cities, but this year it’s back in London.

From the start it needed commercial sponsors. These have included Drexel Burnham Lambert, Channel 4 and Gordon’s Gin. And where there’s money involved, those who invest want value and visibility for that money. And visibility in the art world usually means “controversy”. The artists are chosen based upon an exhibition in which they have shown during the previous year. Nominations from the public are invited but this is largely cosmetic, as the journalist Lynn Barber confirmed when she was a judge in 2006. The process is arcane. The prize is not actually awarded based on the accompanying Tate show, but on the original exhibition for which the artist was selected, and the real power lies with the panel of judges, which includes fashionable curators and critics.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Tripoli Cancelled, 2017. Single channel film. Commissioned by Documenta14. Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and Art Jameel. Additional support by Locus Athens, Hellinikon AE and Experimenter.

In 1985, although the conceptual group Art and Language was nominated, painting was still considered central enough that the prize was awarded to Howard Hodgkin. This year any pretence that painting is at the forefront of contemporary art has been abandoned. All four artists work with either video or film. Much of my criticism of previous Turner prize shortlists has been the tired reliance on postmodern irony but, finally, this year—a year when we face Brexit, a migration crisis, the rise of the right wing across Europe and a very real threat to our democracy—the art does appear to engage with current events and cock something of a snoop at the financial trillions of international art dealers and collectors. But is it any good? Well, yes and no.

Luke Willis Thompson, Autoportrait, 2017. Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Andy Keate.

That the work is worthy is not in doubt. But good art also needs to engage the viewer. Charlotte Prodger’s statement that her “installations and performances look at what happens to speech and other representation of the self as they metamorphose via time and space and various technological systems…” made my heart sink. Mainly about sexual identity and queer politics, her rather disconnected ramblings lack any narrative cohesion though she tries to ally them with the Neolithic stone circles and ancient cult of the mother goddess found in her native Aberdeenshire. Whilst there are some lovely painterly shots of rust and purple Scottish landscapes, and her cat, the whole feels like the filmed version of a rather over-complicated dissertation.

Luke Willis Thompson, _Human, 2018, depicting the artwork of Donald Rodney My Mother, My Father, My Sister, My Brother, 1997. Commissioned and produced by Kunsthalle Basel. Courtesy of the artist, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland/Wellington; and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Cologne/Berlin

The same could be said of Luke Willis Thompson’s 35mm Kodak Double-X black-and-white film, that gives a whole new meaning to the word slow. At thirty, he is the youngest nominee. His Autoportrait was based on the shooting of Diamond Reynolds’ partner Philando Castile by a police officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota. Also showing is his filmed study of Donald Rodney, entitled _Human (1997). Rodney was undergoing treatment at King’s College Hospital for sickle cell anaemia and, before he died, made a small architectural model of a house from his own skin held together with dressmakers pins. This can be seen at the beginning of series of the ten-minute films—we see it from every angle. Then Willis Thompson hones in on the silent faces of his protagonists who seem, in some way, to be bearing witness. Their gazes are intense as painted portraits. But the whole is arcane and lacking in narrative connections that might grab the viewer.

Forensic Architecture, Killing in Umm al-Hiran, 18 January 2017 (still). Annotations by Forensic Architecture on Israeli police footage

The other two works are more direct. Forensic Architecture is a fifteen-member collective of architects, investigative journalists, software developers, scientists and filmmakers based at Goldsmiths in South London. Their aim is to use technology and art to uncover various human rights abuses around the world. Here, together with the collective Activestills, they’ve attempted to unravel official statements about the events of 18 January 2017 when a nighttime raid by the Israeli police on a Bedouin village in the Negev/Al-Naqab desert resulted in the death of two people. It’s a powerful and shocking piece but I question how elastic the definitions of art should become and whether this would have been more suited to a documentary film award.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017. Three-channel installation, Hessisches. Landesmuseum, Kassel, Documenta 14. Commissioned by Documenta 14. Co-commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation and Ford Foundation/Just Films. Supported by Arts Council, Bengal Foundation, Tensta Konsthall. Additional support by Experimenter and Tate Films. Photo by Michael Nast

For me, the work by the British-Bangladeshi artist Naeem Mohaiemen is the most satisfying. His first fiction film, Tripoli Cancelled, follows the daily routine of a man who lived alone in an abandoned airport for a decade. Wandering among the detritus of this empty building in a crisp tan suit and white shirt is like watching someone lost amid the shards of the twenty-first century. Picking up a phone in a smashed phone booth in an attempt to call his wife, he is unable to get through and tells the operator that he’ll try again the following week. Then sitting on the steps of a frozen escalator he quietly sings Never on a Sunday as a tear rolls down his cheek and he lights up a cigarette. With poetic sensibility Mohamiemen suggests a sense of dislocation and the plight of refugees trapped in stateless limbos. Call me sentimental, but I had a lump in my throat.

Published in Elephant Magazine

Life, Death and Reincarnation
with Boo Saville

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“Before I was always wary of the idea of beauty.” Boo Saville talks to Sue Hubbard about finding solace in her colour field paintings, following her mother’s death.

Boo Saville at True Colours, Newport Street Gallery

Boo Saville is a rarity among painters in that she’s both a figurative and an abstract artist. She has, in the past, been labelled as new gothic because her work has long dealt with death. As we sit down to lunch in the Newport Street Gallery in London, where she’s part of the group show True Colours with two other artists, Sadie Laska and Helen Beard, I ask how she developed such a mawkish interest.

Like many children, she tells me, she thought about death a lot. It might have been something as simple as a pet dying that stimulated her young imagination. She can’t quite remember. It’s not that she came from a religious household or believed in heaven and hell. It’s just that at an early age, she realized that at some point we’re all going to die. At art school she made a secret painting of a mass grave, like those in Auschwitz, that released something in her. Skulls, ghosts and decay became recurring symbols.

She used to go to museums to draw and just take a biro, working in layers to build up the surface like an old master painting. Butter Skunk, for example, featured biro recreations of photographs of mummified bodies found in Danish bogs the 1950s. But, more recently, something’s changed. She’s making large colour field paintings like those in True Colours that, for the viewer, create a kind of sublime immersion. In 2014 her mum died, and she was poleaxed by grief. Something changed, she says, in her vision. The way she saw the world went through a transformation.

Installation view, True Colours

“As I walked around it was a bit like being on ecstasy, as though all the love and emotion I felt for my mum was somehow being reabsorbed. It was really important when planning her funeral that everything was beautiful. This experience stimulated a new relationship with colour. Before I was always wary of the idea of beauty, somehow skirting around it.”

“If I’m making an 11-foot painting up on a scissor lift, I have to really believe in it”

I ask where she gets her ideas. If she’s influenced by what she reads, but she admits that she hardly reads at all, except for books on mental health or people like Fred West. “Though I do spend a great deal of time online and when I’m working I listen to playlists. I like movie soundtracks. Stuff that’s varied and emotional. I don’t have a telly. I work all the time. If I’m not working I don’t get out of bed for days. It takes it out of me. If I’m making an 11-foot painting up on a scissor lift, I have to really believe in it. It’s a big commitment. I listen to music on my earphones and paint to the soundtrack. There’s a performative element to it. I can’t hide behind anything. It’s so uncool, so uncontemporary to work like this but I just want to connect with people, to create works that bring people together and make them feel.” She likes, she says, the idea of her audience reflecting on her paintings, projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto them, filling them in with their lives.

Boo Saville, Ain (Eye of the Bull), 2018. Photo Prudence Cuming Associates

And while working, a word, a completely extraneous word, may just float into her head such as “tiptoe” that will trigger all sort of associations and images. “It’s like drawing a map in one’s own brain.” The big paintings, though, are essentially intuitive. “I might think this time I’d like a dark one, but the process is very fluid. The paintings themselves dictate the directions that they take. But they’re hard work. I want them to look as though they’ve just appeared, not that they’ve been worked on.” She talks of them as if they were cheeses. Some, she says, are young. Others more mature.

I ask about her life. She tells me that she and her husband Adam, who’s doing a PhD, used to live in one room in a shared house. Then, after her parents died, they moved to a one bedroom flat in Margate near where she has her studio. “It’s on an industrial estate behind B&Q, between a roofer and a sign maker. Not at all trendy,” she says. She’s the only woman in the place and the only artist and has to share a communal loo. When she first moved in she found a note saying: “A lady’s moved in. Put the seat down and mind your language boys.”

“Making this work is a mix of intuition and rigorous technique”

But she loves Margate and hasn’t looked back since she left London. She starts her working day at about 8am with coffee, puts on music, checks her brushes are dry enough to work with and selects which ones she’s going to use. “I love mixing paint and I’m very obsessional about my brush-cleaning habits because they have to be super-soft and not leave any brush marks, as each layer needs to be completely smooth. Between each one the canvas is sanded and washed. So, making this work is a mix of intuition and rigorous technique”.

Installation view, True Colours

She doesn’t work with an assistant and does everything herself. “I don’t want another person in the room with me. I’m completely at home when making work. I’m never lonely when painting. I was on my own a lot as a child”. Has she ever wanted children? I ask. Well, it’s just not happened, she says, and work has just taken over, become more important.

And how does she see the future? “Well, I dream of being in my seventies and at the top of my game like Phyllida Barlow. I love the sense of freedom in her work but I’m still too anxious to be that free.”

Installation view, True Colours

So, did she know she always wanted to be an artist? “Yes, I told my mum aged six that’s what I was going to be. I had a little plastic glow worm toy—mine was an artist one—so I’ve been on that path ever since. You could say I’ve had tunnel vision. Mum was a primary school teacher and my dad did a PhD in education. We had a little primary school at home where we could draw on the walls. I put so much of what I do down to my mum. The truth is that she’s completely there in these new colour field paintings.”

So, I ask, are they a form of reincarnation, a secular form of life after death? “Yes”, she says, “They wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t lost her. I cried when I saw the show. It was like losing her and finding her all over again.”

All images courtesy Newport Street Gallery

Published in Elephant Magazine

A Drama of Ideas
with Christo

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“I love the heat and air, wet and cold. I’m not very interested in the clinical space of the gallery.”

Christo discusses his literally monumental practice with Sue Hubbard, as his latest work of art is unveiled at the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park.

It’s a beautiful chmmer morning as I make my way past the lakes and fountains, towards the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, where I’m to meet Christo, one of the few contemporary artists to be known only by one name. The wild heron balanced on top of the lakeside Henry Moore seems propitious. A collision between art and nature in an urban setting; a theme that runs deep through Christo’s work. The day before our meeting marked the opening of The London Mastaba, his temporary sculpture of 7,506 horizontally stacked blue and red painted barrels set on a floating platform in the Serpentine Lake, like a great pyramid.

I have my questions carefully prepared. What was the effect of his communist upbringing? Does he consider himself a land artist? How does he see his legacy? But, before I can get out the first question, he’s off—his sentences running as fast as a greyhound out of the starting box. This isn’t so much an interview as a private lecture by one of contemporary art’s most genuinely original artists.

“I owe everything to my parents,” he tells me. “My father was half Czechoslovakian, half Bulgarian. My mother, Macedonian. From the age of seven they encouraged me. I had private art lessons, real painting, real sculpture, real architecture. It was not so much that I escaped Communist Bulgaria in 1956,” he says, “rather that I went to live with relations in Prague. The world was chaotic. There was a lot of violence. Austria was divided. We feared WWIII. I’d done four years at the academy and the curriculum was very nineteenth century. We studied the decorative arts and even did two semesters of anatomy.

“I belonged nowhere. I was young and had never seen any real contemporary art so headed for Paris”

The course was eight years, but I left after four. I became a stateless person. I had no means, nothing at all. I had a “white passport”, a Nansen passport issued by The League of Nations. I belonged nowhere. I was young and had never seen any real contemporary art so headed for Paris where I did all sorts of odd jobs. It was in Paris that I met my late wife and life-long collaborator, Jeanne-Claude.”

I ask if he believes his comprehensive art education was of value. After all, his beautifully drawn plans have the precision of an architect’s project. “Well, the first critic who wrote of the wrapped Reichstag was an architectural critic. Space is such an important element in this work.”

“It’s an adventure, a drama of ideas but also very physical. I used to have huge arguments with Jeanne-Claude”

Where does he get his ideas from? They’re quite unlike anyone else’s. “I’m interested,” he says, “in the things we don’t know how to do, that engineers don’t yet know how to make. I work with a pool of people in the small hub of my nineteenth-century building. It’s an adventure, a drama of ideas but also very physical. I used to have huge arguments with Jeanne-Claude. We’d argue all the time. That’s how we developed our ideas. I’m not interested in modern technology. I can’t drive. I don’t use a computer. There is no elevator in my block. I spend six or seven hours a day standing in the studio. I like what’s real. I love the heat and air, wet and cold. I’m not very interested in the clinical space of the gallery. We call the thinking time the “software period”.

Educated as a Marxist, he set up a corporation to fund his projects largely from the proceeds of his drawings and other permanent artworks. He’s never had public funding and feels this gives him total aesthetic freedom. “Anyway,” he says, “in the early days no one was interested in our work.” He develops several projects simultaneously and emphasizes that he makes the work entirely himself and has no assistants. But he does need teams to help with the complex logistical planning and installation. It’s very expensive. The London Mastaba will have cost around £3,000,000. And it’s hard to get permissions. Twenty-three projects have been successfully made; forty-seven never happened.

“We work with the urban and the rural but in places touched by human habitation… Everything is based in the real”

Does he know what a work will look like when it’s finished? “Oh, yes. We find places to make them in secret, test the materials. For the Pont Neuf piece, we went to a small French village where the mayor owned a Monet and asked to wrap up his bridge.”

Does he feel connected to the tradition of land artists, such as Robert Smithson and his Spiral Jetty? “No. We work with the urban and the rural but in places touched by human habitation. We need the lamppost or church to give comparative scale. Everything is based in the real”.

How does a work evolve? “Well, in the places where people or collectors support us.” In the 1980s Miami was a place of race riots, refugees and violent crime. He and Jeanne-Claude arrived in town attracted by the flatness of the landscape, intending to dress the islands, built from piles of trash in Biscayne Bay, with hot-pink skirts. The result was lyrical and visually stunning. The idea was Jeanne-Claude’s, he reminds me, and it’s evident that he still misses her.

On 9 October 1991, their 1,880 workers began to simultaneously open some 3,100 yellow and blue umbrellas in Ibaraki, Japan and California. Why umbrellas? “Ah,” he says, “the work is like a diptych based in two of the richest countries in the world, but that have huge cultural differences. There’s a comparison in the space. Japan would virtually fit into California, which is much less densely populated. California is essentially flat, Japan mountainous. We started with the idea of shelters, but that was too difficult. Then tents.

We wanted to incorporate the idea of the nomadic. In the end it became umbrellas: roofs without walls. Yellow for California where the grass becomes burnt. Blue for Japan where there are rivers. We placed them near churches and gas stations. Real places. The umbrellas had bases where people sat. Families picnicked there. But in Japan, they took off their shoes. That’s a cultural difference. People think umbrellas were invented in Japan, but it was in Mesopotamia. Our umbrellas were eight meters wide and nine meters high. The size of an average two-storey Japanese house.”

Next, I ask about a typical Christo day. “I like to start the morning hungry. I might take a little yoghurt with garlic, a banana and some coffee. I need to feel edgy and alert, so I eat in the evening. The day is for creativity, the evening for classifying and ordering.” He doesn’t read anymore. “Because I’m running out of time,” he says. “The only thing that matters, now, is my art.”

And his legacy? Well, the work is all temporary, fragile. Like people striking a camp in the desert. It’s there one minute, then taken down. “In the end, what do we know about ourselves? What remains are ruins and memories. We can make a sort of archaeology, but reconstruction isn’t real. The computer chip is the most reliable way of recording what’s real. These will give the only true records of the present in the future. But I don’t like nostalgia. I love life too much. I’m not interested in retrospectives. I have too many new projects in mind.”

Published in Elephant Magazine

Chantal Joffe

Published in The London Magazine

Art Criticism

I have long been interested in the work of Chantal Joffe and have written about her on several occasions. Her figurative paintings of family and friends are routed in a gritty, observed reality which makes her unusual in an art world full of insouciant irony. She’s interested in people, their inner landscapes and what makes them tick. She’s also interested in the materiality and language of paint which she uses with verve and vitality. She’s obsessed with what paint can be made to do and what it can tell us.

There are many influences to her work. The American artist Alice Neel. Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and child. But there’s one influence that connects us directly, as writer and artist – the little-known German painter, Paula Modershon-Becker (1876-1907). There is a self-portrait of Paula in the Courtauld but you’d be hard pressed to see any more of her work in this country. Most of it is in Germany. Joffe’s new exhibition at The Lowry, which uses a quote from Modersohn-Becker as its title is, in many ways, a homage.

“Paula is a bubble between two centuries”, Joffe tells me.

In 2012, I wrote Girl in White, a novel based on Modersohn-Becker’s relationships with those she met when she settled in Worspwede, a remote artists’ colony on the North German moors. There, she mixed with others who wanted to live a life dedicated to art outside the strictures of 19th century German bourgeois society. These people included the older painter Otto Modersohn, who was to become her husband, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a passionate friendship, and the sculptor Clara Westhoff, who, disastrously, became Rilke’s wife.

The Worpswede colony was very much part of the mood-music among late 19th century European artists who wanted to ‘return’ to nature. Essentially a Romantic movement, this nostalgia for a prelapsarian existence was precipitated by the growth of industrialisation and the effects of urban modernisation. Many believed these were destroying their relationship with the landscape and their folk traditions. When Paula arrived in Worpswede she too initially painted landscape but, as she grew intellectually, emotionally and artistically, she developed a different agenda. Her subject became people. She painted the old in the local poorhouse, breast-feeding women and the children of peasants with an empathy close to that of Van Gogh’s. It’s hard for us to realise just how radical such a decision was, especially by a young middle-class girl. Paula sought out the raw, the authentic and the marginalised in a way that was completely modern. There wasn’t a smack of the drawing-room sentiment anywhere to be seen.

Talking to Chantal in her studio, on the battered sofa among postcards of Paula’s work and her own half-finished paintings, it becomes more and more evident that our interests overlap. We’re both mothers and creative women who, like many others including Paula, have struggled to find a balance between home, art, motherhood and career and, for whom, the intimacy of everyday life is central to our work. Though separated by more than 100 years, Paula’s intensity of vision and her commitment to the fullness of life, as an artist and a woman, reverberates throughout Joffe’s work. Like Freud, Joffe paints those from within a tight circle of family and friends. She not so much produces portraits, in the sense of a photographic likeness, but investigations – a sense of what it is like to inhabit the subject’s skin.

“I was”,  she says, “hesitant, mindful of the danger of placing myself alongside such a strong painter. I was worried it’d be seen as a form of self-aggrandisement, but I’m interested in the intimacy Paula creates. Personal feeling is always the main thing. That’s why I love her. There’s never anything unnecessary, nothing extra or extraneous. Only what is needed. The work’s so strong, so modern, so ahead of its time. My decision to go ahead was helped by the fact that she’s poorly known here and that maybe, through this exhibition, her work will become more celebrated. She’s just so good.”

I ask why she chose Paula and she says that she was attracted to a painter she’ d never seen before – a woman who was both tough and romantic, vulnerable yet determined. She loves the works of Picasso and Bonnard but here was a painter she could relate to directly and in a very personal way. She wanted to explore what they shared. Her paintings, like Paula’s, are intimate and domestic. She’s painted fellow artists, such as Ishbel Myerscough, and charted the passage of her daughter Esme from new-born infant to adolescent, with many of the blips along the way. These works map the passing of time, the minute changes that occur day to day within emotional connections and bonds.

As we sit talking, with our tea and biscuits, about our mutual concerns – just as Paula did with her friend Clara in her Worpswede studio – it strikes me how similar Joffe looks like Modersohn-Becker. She has the same broad intelligent face, pulled-back hair and snub nose. I tell her my thoughts and she blushes. Of course, she has seen this herself, though she does not admit it. It’s there in her Self-Portrait as Paula II where she looks inscrutably over her shoulder with her back naked to the viewer. Self-Portrait at 21, with its Matisse-style patterned robe, echoes something of the background of Paula’s Self-Portrait on the Sixth Wedding Day.

Paula Modersohn-Becker had an uncanny sense that she was going to die young. Her quest, at the century’s turn, was ‘to become something.’ Her whole life was a struggle between the binaries of domesticity and artistic fulfilment, duty and self-determination, the security of home and the stimulation of adventure and new experience. She longed for a child. She would paint herself holding her stomach as if she were in a phantom pregnancy. She would then claim that she was actually pregnant with art. Despite Modersohn-Becker’s bourgeois upbringing, she had a restless sensuality which is mirrored in Joffe’s work. You can see it in her unsparing nude self-portraits that show her, for example, sitting naked on a striped chaise lounge. There’s nothing romantic about the dark circles under her eyes, her sagging breasts and stomach and the unflattering long black socks – the only things she wears. And, there is nothing flattering about the ¾ Length Self-Portrait where she stands against a barren, leafless tree like some menopausal Eve. There are also a number of paintings of pregnant women and women with children, and there’s an especial poignancy to those of her daughter, Esme, when we know that Paula died tragically at the age of 32 from an embolism – only weeks after giving birth to her own daughter, Mathilde.

Paula Modersohn- Becker’s life was brilliant but sadly her career cut short. Her passionate female nudes and portraits of prepubescent girls, which sought for ever-more simplification, are extraordinary, considering that convention demanded she was a wife first and a painter second. Spirited, brave, tender and fierce, Paula understood that ‘personal feeling’ is always the main thing. Fashions in art come and go but there’ll always be a place for what is authentic, for what is true.

It’s as if Joffe, with her broad strokes of expressive and nervy paint, has picked up Paula’s baton and is running with it into the middle of the 21st century.

Chantal Joffe’s artwork exhibition ‘Personal Feeling is the Main Thing’ is running at The Lowry Art Gallery until the 2nd September. You can find out more about the artist here.

Published in The London Magazine

Gillian Ayres
My Fiercely independent Friend

Published in Artlyst

Art Criticism

Yesterday the art world not only lost one of its finest and most loved abstract painters, but I lost a great friend. There will be plenty of well-deserved plaudits and obituaries for Gillian Ayres, who died yesterday at the age of 88, after a bout of illness. But I want to add something more personal.

I first met her in 1984 when, as a young arts journalist, I was sent to interview her in her Three Bears cottage in a remote glade of a Cornish valley. It was a long way to go, and I was invited to stay. Warm and chaotic, the place was full of animals, cigarette smoke and, I believe, followed the Quentin Crisp approach to housekeeping, which was that after four years the dust never got any worse. I found it amazing that Gillian was able to produce such an array of stunning, jewel-like canvases from her small studio. We hit it off right away. Feisty, opinionated, fiercely intelligent and well read, we discussed everything from art, to Shakespeare and religion, which she hated. And she cooked delicious meals.

Independent and feisty Gillian was, actually, very shy and hated to talk in any public capacity about her work

Born in 1930, she grew up in Barnes, then still semi-rural with its wooded common and market gardens where, many years later I, myself, was to live. It was a comfortable middle-class existence. She attended St. Paul’s Girls school where her best friend was the future politician Shirley Williams. She once sent me a photograph of them sitting on a haystack. With her long golden locks, she was a stunning teenage. But it was on a day in 1943, she told me, as she was going up to the school art room, that she discovered some illustrated monographs on van Gogh, Gauguin and Monet. Already well versed in poetry and music, she had excelled at drawing and painting since she’d been a small child, but this was the moment she knew she wanted to be an artist.

Gillian Ayres ‘Untitled’ Oil on Canvas – Private Collection – Photo: Courtesy Sue Hubbard

At St. Paul’s a social conscience was encouraged. Many of her teachers had been suffragettes. Just before D-Day, when she was 14, the brother of a friend who’d been serving in the army arrived ‘out of the desert’ and took them both for a treat to a Knightsbridge hotel. Previously Head Boy at Winchester, he was, as Gillian put it with characteristic understatement, ‘bumped off’. She remembered then, in the midst of war, thinking that art was all that we human beings leave behind.

Fiercely independent she determined, in 1946, to leave school early and go to art school, despite her head mistress’s portentous warning to her mother about the sort of men her daughter would meet there. Too young at 16 for the Slade, she gained a place at Camberwell—though her kindly parents would have preferred her to marry a respectable doctor. Having no grant and, though she received 30 shillings a week from her family, her need of money to fund her voracious smoking habit led her to model (nude) for the Camera Club. She never told her parents. She was, she said, pretty bloody-minded when young.

It was at Camberwell that she rejected what she referred to as the prevailing Euston Road ‘measuring thing’ and found her tutor, William Coldstream, dictatorial— ‘it was dot and dash and measure.’ So she began to attend Victor Pasmore’s Saturday morning classes where he talked of ‘feelings’ and embraced abstraction. In 1950, two months before her finals she walked out of Camberwell— ‘What should one have taken it for and for whom?’—and caught a train to Penzance where she spent the summer working as a chambermaid. Back in London she turned down an allowance from her father and an offer to go to Paris and did a series of uninspiring jobs. An opportunity to work at the AIA gallery gave her the chance to meet some of the most original artists of her day. It was there that she began to find her own creative vision.

It’s hard, now, in these artistically eclectic times, when anything goes, to understand just how hostile then the general public was to abstract art and how dominated art schools were by an academic approach. As Herbert Read said of abstraction, it was ‘met with almost universal resistance in England’. But the 1956 Tate exhibition Modern Art of Abstract Expressionism was a creative watershed. Gillian revelled in the freedom and energy of the Pollocks, the de Koonings and Klines and determined that from then on, she’d leave the traces of her painterly actions on the canvas and allow the paint to speak for itself. After this, she began to paint on the floor. It was at her last show at Alan Cristea, which even in her 80s, was a triumph of originality and invention, that she said to me: ‘I love obscurity in modern art. I don’t want a story. There are no rules about anything. I just go on doing what I do. I want to do nothing else.’

Gillian Ayres  ‘Untitled’ – Private Collection – Photo: Courtesy Sue Hubbard

I have so many Gillian stories. There’s the time I was staying at Tall Trees, and one of her dear (and I have to say very smelly dogs) died in the night from kidney failure. In the morning I came downstairs to find it lying stiff on its back in the wheelbarrow covered by the beautiful Persian rug it had peed on during the night before – and a very distraught Gillian. I remember, too, the wonderful week I spent at the British School of Rome as her guest and companion, much of it also in the company of her son Sam Mundy. We looked at art, we ate wonderful meals, saw friends in a remote farmhouse in the hills. She was always enormously generous, and I left Rome carrying a painting fresh from the studio which, in those days before security checks, I carried onto the plane still wet. When I got it home, I realised I’d pressed my thumb into a layer of thick turquoise paint. I rang Gillian appalled. Oh, don’t worry, she said, in that unpretentious way of hers, just squash it over. I did, and in so doing, went down to the next layer of pink paint. Of course, these many years later it has dried. My thumbprint now a part of its history. Then there was the time when my own mother died, and I received, through the post, two beautiful artist prints rolled up in a tube. I was overwhelmed. When I phoned to thank her, we joked that she could now be my surrogate mother.

Gillian worked enormously hard. She more or less supported her two sons when they were growing up through teaching at St. Martins, where she was appointed Head of Painting in 1978, the first woman in this country to hold such a post, and teaching at Winchester. Always one to live by her own rules, with no regular income, she ended up living in a rambling 18th rectory in Wales in a complicated ménage a trois with her husband Henry Mundy and lover, the Welsh painter, Gareth Williams.

In 2004 she rang me to say that there’d been a fire at the Momart warehouse and that much of her middle period work, along with that by painters such as Patrick Heron and Barry Flanigan, had gone up in flames. Not only was this a huge financial loss but it left a big hole in the narrative of her life’s work. But with characteristic fortitude Gillian made very little of it. She was never one for self-pity.

Independent and feisty she was, actually, very shy and hated to talk in any public capacity about her work. Yet her life-affirming paintings, with their references to Shakespeare, music and Egyptian art, continued to push against their own limits to speak, not only of a passion for paint, but of the light, lyricism and sensuality of the natural world. ‘The act of painting,’ she once said to me with total conviction, ‘is an act of belief.’

Through my friendship with her, I had a vision of a fast disappearing bohemian world. One where one did what one did because of passion and love and not career choices, where what other people thought just didn’t matter. Gillian Ayres changed the face of British painting, and I shall miss her greatly. It was a privilege to know her.

Published in Artlyst

Hughie O’Donoghue on
Van Gogh and
Terrible Beauty

Published in Elephant Magazine

Art Criticism

“You must give yourself up to the process. Subjects emerge slowly, like archaeology.”Hughie O’Donoghue’s hazy works are viscerally dreamy, rich in colour and texture. Sue Hubba rd speaks with the painter about the sacrifices of Van Gogh and the dangers of irony.

I first came across Hughie O’Donoghue’s work as a young critic when, in 1989, I went to review his solo show, Fires, at Fabian Carlsson. I can still remember the profound effect his intense semi-abstract paintings, with their old master blacks and fiery oranges, had on me. The late eighties were the high point of irony. Goldsmiths, where O’Donoghue did his masters, was the driving force behind this knowing, often conceptual approach to art. But these works were different. They hit you in the solar