Dora Maar at Paul Stolper Gallery

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

Being one of Picasso’s women was a double edged sword. It ensured you a place in the pantheon of art history but always as the role of helpmeet to the great man rather than as an independently talented woman. Such has, mostly, been the fate of Henriette Theodora Markovitch, the only daughter of a Croatian architect. In 1910 her father left for Buenos Aires where he received a number of commissions before the family moved to Paris in 1926. There, under her chosen pseudonym of Dora Maar, Henriette took courses at the Central Union of Decorative Arts and the School of Photography, also enrolling in the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian, which gave the same instruction to women as to men. Not the norm at the time.

It was at the École des Beaux-Arts that she met the surrealist Jaqueline Lamba and became associated with André Breton and the surrealists who hung out at the Café de la Place Blanche.
Later, Maar left Paris alone to visit Barcelona and London, where she photographed the economic knock-on effects of the 1929 Wall Street Crash. On her return to Paris she opened, with the help of her father, a workshop in the 8th arrondissement. It was there that she first met Picasso. She was to become his lover and muse. A role that has overshadowed her own singular achievements. One of these was running a workshop that produced commercial photography for fashion magazines and advertisements, reflecting the influence of surrealism in the use of mirrors and heavy shadow. She also had an affair with the filmmaker Louis Chavance and attended meetings with the October Group that revolved, after his break with the surrealists, around the poet Jacques Prévert. And she held her first solo exhibition at the Galerie Vanderberg.

Aligning herself with the political left, she demonstrated against Fascism and signed the Appeal to Struggle, supported by the likes of Simone Weil and Georges Bataille.  This, then, is the exceptional woman who, now, is mostly known to us as the Picasso’s Weeping Woman. Picasso liked to see her as the embodiment of suffering, emblematic of the war-torn Spanish people. But Dora Maar, who photographed and documented the successive stages of Guernica, insisted that “all portraits of me are lies. They’re Picassos. Not one is Dora Maar”.

But Maar was enthralled by Picasso.  The writer Jean-Paul Crespelle described the, now, legendary scenario that took place at the Café des Deux Magots. There, in front of Picasso, the pale faced young woman “kept driving a small painted penknife between her fingers into the wood of the table. Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared between the roses embroidered on her black gloves”. Intrigued by this seductive, yet masochistic behaviour, Picasso asked her to give him the gloves as a memento. But during the nine years they were together, he never ended his relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mother of their daughter Maya. He also physically abused Maar, forcing her to fight with Marie-Therese for his affections. When her relationship with him finally ended, he bought her a house in Ménerbes where she lived alone turning, like that other talented woman spurned by a more powerful male artist/lover, Gwen John, to the comfort of the Catholic church. A later friendship with Jacques Lacan led her into years of psychoanalysis after she suffered a breakdown. Much of her photographic work was only found posthumously.


Paul Stolper has chosen to ignore this biography in his current exhibition that is showing a number of Maar’s silver gelatin contacts and posthumous silver gelatin prints taken during her most productive decade, the 1930s.  His argument is that he wants to show her in her own right and it’s hard to argue with the integrity of this decision but it does leave out something of the dramatic backdrop. The exhibition opens with stunning black and white silver gelatin prints of Inés Sassier – Picasso’s beautiful young housekeeper  – seated on an olive trunk arm chair. Her dark curly hair and black dress are sharply delineated, casting shadows against the tree trunk and ground. Another image of her seated in the same chair holding a cat, as it stares out at us with its big saucer eyes, has much of the disturbing drama of a Picasso painting. There’s also a fascinating photograph, La Zone, Paris, taken in about 1935 that depicts the vanished outskirts of the city: a couple of broken-down wooden huts, a picket fence and washing line and lots of mud, the sort of living conditions we now associate with the most deprived parts of eastern Europe. Beside the fence is a pile of discarded rubbish, including the disembodied head of a male manikin, which emphasises her eye for the uncanny and surreal. There are other photographs of her and Picasso’s dogs and melancholic pictures of the Jardin des Tuileries at twilight, circa 1935, as well as the prow of a Viking ship that could be seen either as large tear drop or an onion.


But of all the works in the exhibition the most revelatory is her one of Picasso. He is leaning, odalisque-style on a bed that has a heavily patterned cover and matching pillows. His dog lies curled beside him but he appears terribly ill at ease in his heavy tweed suit. It is still uncomfortably buttoned as if he didn’t mean to stay for long, the tweed rucked into ungainly angles. Beneath the half open jacket is a heavy watch chain and in the breast pocket, a folded handkerchief, so that instead of looking like the Spanish stud of modern art, this might be the picture of a little Spanish farmer in town for the day visiting his mistress. It was probably not meant as such, but this photograph might be Dora Maar’s posthumous revenge.

PABLO PICASSO AND HIS DOG, KAZBEK, AT DORA MAAR’S APARTMENT, 6 RUE DE SAVOIE, PARIS (PABLO PICASSO ET SON CHIEN, KAZBEK, CHEZ DORA MAAR, 6 RUE DE SAVOIE, PARIS) C. 1942, 2022, silver gelatin print on Baryta paper, 40 × 30 cm sheet, 26 × 26 cm image

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

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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.

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

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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.

Hannah Collins, El Tiempo del Fuego at Maureen Paley

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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

Published in Doris

Imagining Landscapes – Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952-1976

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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

Published in Doris

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

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