Antony Gormley

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Entering the Antony Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is almost like walking onto a construction site. Full of dense, hard-edged steel slabs, visitors navigate around building-like constructions to get to the next room. Overwhelmed by the stark, geometric shapes, it is easy to miss the human forms that the sculptures are representing. Open until 3rd December 2019, the human body plays a large role in Gormley’s latest exhibition in ways you would least expect.

Unlike most solo exhibitions, there is no history of Gormley’s life or 45-year career. There is no explanation about his style of work or artistic movement. Instead, the only story in the exhibition is the one visitors bring with them. With many interactive exhibits, Gormley’s aim is for everyone to come away with unique, individual experiences. He invites people to slow down, become more aware of their bodies and rethink their understanding of the connection between body and mind.

Sir Antony Mark David Gormley was born on 30th August 1950, the youngest of seven children to a German mother and Irish father. Growing up in the suburbs of London, Gormley attended the Benedictine boarding school Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire before enrolling at Trinity College, Cambridge to study archaeology, anthropology and the history of art. Despite being brought up in a Roman Catholic family, Gormley travelled to India and Sri Lanka to learn more about Buddhism. On return from his time abroad, he began attending Saint Martin’s School of Art and Goldsmiths in London, finally completing a postgraduate course in sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art.

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Iron Baby 1999

Whilst at the Slade, Gormley met his future assistant and, as of 1980, wife, Vicken Parsons (b.1957). The couple have since been blessed with two sons and a daughter, the latter was the inspiration for the first sculpture in the exhibition. Situated on the floor of the courtyard where anyone could trip over it is a small iron cast of a newborn baby. Cast from Gormely’s 6-week old daughter, the life-size baby is made from the same material as the core of planet Earth. Gormley aims to make visitors aware of our “precarious position in relation to our planetary future.” The curled up body of the baby represents a need for shelter, comfort and peace.

Antony Gormley’s career began with a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1981. The majority of his sculptures were based on the human body, often cast from his physique. In 2006, with the help of 350 Chinese villagers, Gormley submitted an installation of 180,000 small clay figures to the 2006 Sydney Biennale and in 2007, 31 life-size casts of his body were installed on top of public buildings along the South Bank of the River Thames.

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Slabworks series, 2019

Gormley began making cubist sculptures in 2012, similar to the Slabworks installed in the first room of the exhibition. Despite being made of geometric shapes, each sculpture is positioned in the vague shapes of human bodies, whether standing, sitting, curled up or lying down. Those visitors who are unaware of the significance of the shapes could be forgiven for mistaking them to be the layout of cityscapes, ourselves being giants navigating our way around them, careful not to cause any disruption or damage.

Gormley won the Turner Prize in 1994 for Field for the British Isles, which consisted of 35,000 miniature figures, which is in keeping with his fascination of the human body. Of course, Gormley is most famous for his Angel of the North, one of the UK’s most famous public art sculptures located in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear. Constructed from steel, the angel is 20 metres (66 feet) tall with large geometric wings spanning 54 metres (177 feet).

Not all of Gormley’s work involves representations of the human body. The second room of the exhibition explores some of his earlier works produced in the 1970s and early 80s. During this time, Gormley experimented with different materials and everyday items, for example, an apple. His installation One Apple bisects the room with a row of 53 lead cases of increasing size. The cases record the growth of an apple from the first fallen petal to the ripening of the fruit. Originally constructed during the Cold War, Gormley used lead to encase the individual pieces for two reasons; one, it was an easy, malleable material to work with and, two, it is a material that can insulate against radiation. Gormley’s reason for wrapping objects in protective material is to make people think about how they wrap and protect their own bodies.

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Mother’s Pride V

Gormley’s most unconventional choice of material is arguably the bread he used to construct Mother’s Pride in 1982. Reconstructed for the fifth time for this exhibition, the shape of a curled-up body has been cut out of a hundred or so wax-covered slices of bread. The edges of the figure are jagged, suggesting the artist has eaten the bread to achieve the result. By consuming food, we keep our body alive. In this instance, the foetal position of the figure could suggest a baby in a mother’s womb; therefore, the mother is eating to keep both herself and the child within alive and well.

Overhead, a highly tensioned steel bar zips across the room and into another where it meets a second bar going in a different direction. A third bar travels from the ceiling to the floor, completing an abstract notion of the x, y and z-axes on a graph. Gormley’s aim to heighten our awareness of our position in space and time. Wherever we go, our location can be pinpointed using the horizontal and vertical lines on a graph to plot the coordinates.

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Clearing VII, 2019.

Visitors become part of the exhibition on entering the third room. Full from ceiling to floor and wall to wall with a continuous eight-kilometre coil of aluminium wire, visitors must navigate their way through to reach the next room. The curls of wire feel like a three-dimensional representation of a child’s energetic scribble. As a sculpture, Clearing VII has no boundaries, the walls of the room are the only parameters; had the room been bigger or smaller, the result would have a completely different look.

By entering the bundle of wire, visitors become part of the installation as they physically negotiate their way through. Bending under, side-stepping and climbing over low sections, a path is eventually navigated through to the room on the opposite side. If the wires are likened to confusion, the journey through them represents the way we solve the problem. The tighter the coils, the harder the problem.

Having traversed the wire-filled room, the next sculpture is a bit of an anticlimax. Subject II is a single life-size body constructed from tightly packed steel bars. With its head bent, contemplating the ground on which it stands, the sculpture is studied from all sides as people make their way around it. Due to the varying horizontal and verticle segments, the sculpture appears to change its appearance when looked at from different positions. Then it is back through the eight-kilometres of wire to reach the next room of the exhibition.

As well as completed sculptures, the exhibition features four decades worth of Gormley’s preliminary work. Hundreds of sketchbooks fill display cases revealing the thought processes and drawings Gormley made before sourcing materials and making his ideas reality. Several of the sculptures on display can be recognised in the sketchbooks as well as other works, such as Angel of the North.

Rather than detailed sketches, Gormley prefers to make rough scribbles. It is more important for him to get his thoughts down on paper than it is to produce accurate representations. Except for this exhibition, Gormley’s sketchbooks are for his eyes only; the presentation of the drawings are irrelevant.

The drawings show the progression of Gormley’s thoughts and the realisation of the outcome. The more developed sketches contain notes of materials and sizes that will be used to construct the sculptures. Not all of Gormley’s final pieces are constructed solely by himself, for instance, his Turner Prize-winning Field for the British Isles, for which he enlisted the help of 60 Mexican brickmakers.

Matrix III is an example of a sculpture that needed input from assistants. The “perpetual maze” consists of 21 intersecting cages suspended from the ceiling. Each cage is roughly the size of an average European bedroom, however, it is impossible to work out where each cage begins and ends.

“I’m trying to activate the space itself in such a way that the viewer’s body becomes activated.”
– Antony Gormley

Once again, the sculpture relies on the viewer’s curiosity and personal interpretation. By walking around it, or even under it, the perspective of the interlocking mesh changes. Gormley’s idea was to visually show the effect an increasing population is having on architecture. With high-rise buildings and blocks of flats being built left, right and centre, we as a society are beginning to live on top of each other. Gormley is asking, “what does that mean for our collective identity?”

The six-tonnes of standard steel mesh is usually used to reinforce concrete walls and lift shafts. As Gormley says, “This rebar is the inner skeleton of the environment we live in.” By only using the densely latticed steel, Gormley has stripped a growing city to its bare bones.

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Lost Horizon I, 2008

The eeriest installation is hands-down Lost Horizon I. Gormley began to work with cast iron, which was suitable for works situated outside. Lost Horizon I consists of dozens of iron casts of the artist’s body. Covering himself in plaster, Gormley spent hours staying still to produce six different moulds. The iron versions have been placed around the room, climbing the walls and standing on the ceiling.

Entering the room, visitors are instantly met by an imposing naked iron man. With slightly rusted appearances, the others come into view as the crowds make their way through the installation. Some people may be familiar with Gormley’s iron men since these are not the first he has produced. Many life-size figures have been placed in deserts, fields, cities and beaches around the world. One, for example, stands in the sea in Margate, Kent, which gradually becomes hidden as the tide comes in.

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Cave, 2019

The largest exhibit in terms of architectural scale is titled Cave. This is another interactive sculpture, which involves visitors making a choice: enter a constricted passageway or navigate around the outside. Those who brave entering the “cave” have to stoop to walk through a pitch-black corridor from one side of the sculpture to the middle and eventually through to the other side.

Gormley is attempting to recreate the darkness we experience when we close our eyes. We become fully aware of our bodies and the walls around us, however, we need to rely on our imagination and intuition to determine where we are in the room. Gormley likens this to cosmic space: we are bounded by our bodies on Earth yet, although we cannot go there, we can imagine the endlessness of space.

Those who opt to walk around the outside of the cave, navigate around rectangular and cuboid chunks of steel, intersected at chaotic angles. What they may not realise, however, is that if viewed from above, the shapes are arranged to look like a human form curled up on its side. In the next room, small sculptures of precariously stacked pieces of clay are laid out to produce a similar shape. In Gormley’s sketchbooks, visitors can see the thought process that went into making these sculptures.

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The final room of the exhibition can only be viewed from the doorway. Titled Host, the entire room is flooded with seawater on a bed of clay. Gormley calls this an “invasion of the inside by the outside,” resulting in something beautiful, yet destructive. Unlike the rest of the exhibition, which involves structure and man-made materials, Host only uses organic elements. The walls of the gallery are the only thing giving the “sculpture” any shape.

This exhibit changes throughout the day as the natural light darkens towards the evening. The water level may recede as the months go on, gradually being absorbed into the clay. The smell of the seawater and the stark contrast of the nineteenth-century gallery also play a role in the way visitors react to the exhibit.

Is Host a work of art or is it a form of destruction? What will the state of the room be like when the exhibition closes in December? Will the floor and walls be damaged – one assumes there must be some form of protection in place. Is the water representing a flood, the destruction of the world; or is it the total opposite, a creation of some sort? There is no explanation, only the interpretation of each individual peering through the door.

It is interesting to see the different reactions of people passing by the entrance to the room. Some take a glance and move on, whereas others stop and stare for a little while. It is impossible to determine what they are thinking but many are no doubt captivated by the reflection of the wooden door in the water. It is not a reflection you often get to see in seawater.

Host marks the end of the Antony Gormley exhibition and people are thrust out into the gift shop with thoughts ranging from “wow” to “what on earth was that about?” Having been a Royal Academician since 2003 and an OBE since 2014, Gormley had hundreds of works to choose between to display in the exhibition and, presumably, these are some of his best or at least most thought-provoking.

It is impossible to sum up the Antony Gormley exhibition. You do not come away having learnt something, you still know next to nothing about the artist. Has Gormley achieved what he set out to do; have we been inspired to self-reflect and challenge the status quo?

“Art becomes this proposition that invites you to rethink what the world is, and your position in it. In the end, the raw material of this exhibition is the psyche, the bodies, the people who come and indeed the feeling that they make together. That is not something that can be moulded or carved or cast, and that’s what makes the whole thing worth doing, because I want to move people. Can we care? Can we look at things anew?”
– Antony Gormley

The Antony Gormley exhibition is open until 3rd December 2019. Tickets are priced between £18 and £22. Please note that some exhibits are not suitable for people sensitive to enclosed spaces or those with mobility problems.

Auguste Rodin and the Parthenon Stone

It started with a kiss …

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The Kiss, 1889

Walking into the Rodin and the art of ancient Greece exhibition at the British Museum brings visitors face to face with The Kiss, one of Rodin’s most famous sculptures. This special exhibition explores the influence the museum had on Rodin’s work, which he visited for the first time in 1881. Home to the Elgin marbles, Rodin was instantly captivated by the beauty of the ancient Parthenon sculptures. Containing a mix of Rodin’s work and the early masterpieces, the British Museum explores how the ancient world influenced his aesthetic imagination.

 

 

“Your beautiful museums, with their marvellous collections, Greek, Assyrian, and Egyptian, awakened in me a flood of sensations, which is not new, had at any rate a rejuvenating influence, and those sensations caused me to follow Nature all the more closely in my studies.”
– Auguste Rodin

The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (François-Auguste-René Rodin, 1840-1917) was one of the most influential European artists of the period and the first since the heyday of Neoclassicism to engage the public with his form of art. Although he is now a famous name, his background was not so propitious. Rodin came from a poor background, the second child of Marie Cheffer and Jean-Baptiste Rodin. He was mostly homeschooled until age 14 when he attended the Petite École, a school that specialised in art and mathematics, however, his application for further study at the École des Beaux-Arts, was rejected on three separate occasions. For many years, Rodin worked as an ornamental mason but he aspired to be something of much more importance.

Rodin’s first major influence, before he visited the British Museum, was Michelangelo (1475-1564), whose statues inspired him when he visited Italy at the end of 1875. Michelangelo’s male nudes were one of the stimuli for Rodin’s The Age of Bronze (1877), which also sits near the entrance to the exhibition. In order to produce this particular bronze statue, Rodin studied the body of a Belgian soldier, Auguste Neyt; a Roman statue of the spear-bearer Doryphoros; as well as Michelangelo’s Dying Slave (1513-16). When The Age of Bronze was first exhibited, it sparked controversy because of its naturalistic appearance. Although Rodin had sculpted it by hand, he was accused of having cast it from a live model.

 

 

 

By 1880 at the age of 40, Rodin’s reputation had been established, earning him a commision by the Paris state to produce a decorative door for the proposed Musée des Artes Décoratifs. Entitled The Gates of Hell, Rodin poured his finest creative energy into the work for 20 years, however, the museum never came into being. Nonetheless, it resulted in 200 figures of which many formed the basis of Rodin’s most famous sculptures, such as The Kiss and The Thinker (1881-2).

The name and the figures featured on The Gates of Hell were inspired by Dante Alighieri’s (1265-1321) Divine Comedy. The individual figures, ranging in height from 15cm to 1m, represented a scene from the first section of the narrative poem, Inferno.

Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer;
My Maker was Divine authority,
The highest Wisdom, and the primal Love.
Before me nothing but eternal things
Were made, and I endure eternally.
Abandon every hope, who enter here.

Dante, Inferno, 3.1-9

The Kiss and The Thinker, both featured in the exhibition, are large marble versions of the original sculptures Rodin produced for the gate. It was normal for sculptors to produce several versions of their work in various sizes, particularly when the originals were in miniature form. In order to exhibit his work, Rodin created the larger versions that the British Museum has borrowed for this show. In fact, one cast of The Thinker sits overlooking Rodin’s grave in the garden of Meudon, where he once lived.

The Kiss, whilst seemingly romantic, has a darker side. The two figures are Paolo and Francesca, two lovers featured in The Divine Comedy, who are about to be discovered by Francesca’s husband – also Paolo’s brother. In a fit of rage, the husband/brother kills the pair; this scene is their final, bittersweet embrace.

The Thinker was designed to sit up high on The Gates of Hell, looking down on all the people wishing to enter. This was originally going to be Minos, the judge of the damned as described in Dante’s version of Hell. After the gates never came to fruition, the soon enlarged sculpture became known as The Thinker. It shows a man with an athletic body sitting with his chin resting on the back of his hand as though lost in meditation. Alternatively, art critics have interpreted it as a man in a state of depression over the tragic nature of the human condition. The pose in which he sits is typical of the sign of mourning in ancient Greek art.

Other figures from the gate are also displayed in the exhibition, however, they are significantly smaller and less impressive than the two previously mentioned. These include The Crouching Woman, Falling Man and Sister of Icarus, the latter being a character entirely made up by Rodin’s imagination.

Interspersed between Rodin’s sculptures are examples of the remains of the Parthenon marble statues produced between 438-432 BC. The majority of these have lost their heads and extremities, leaving only their torsos and upper legs intact. Nevertheless, Rodin saw the beauty in these sculptures, proclaiming, “… they are no less masterpieces for being incomplete.”

As visitors to the exhibition will notice, Rodin frequently created works that resembled these ancient Greek sculptures, complete with missing heads. He aimed to honour the remains he so admired, relying on the bodies to give expression to the figures.

 

 

 

“This is real flesh! … It must have been moulded by kisses and caressess … one almost expects, when touching this torso, to find it warm.”
– Rodin, 1911, speaking about Torso of Venus

For many years, Rodin spent a large amount of his time at the British Museum; it became his second home and allowed him to visit ancient Greece without leaving London. The statues he so admired were originally from the Acropolis of Athens, which Lord Elgin (1766-1841) had brought to England in 1803; these sculptures are often referred to as the Elgin Marbles.

It is thought that many of the Elgin Marbles were designed by Pheidias (480-430 BC) who is regarded in antiquity as the greatest artist of all time. Unfortunately, the most famous of his works have not survived, notably the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  In 447 BC, the Greek statesman, Pericles, commissioned Pheidas to produce sculptures, which would later decorate the Parthenon in Athens, in celebration of the Greek victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon during the Greco-Persian Wars (490 BC).

Although only fragments of the original marble statues survive, Rodin was inspired by the headless, limbless figures and deliberately appropriated this all’antica (“after the antique”) look in his own sculptures. He was particularly drawn to the way motion could be expressed in stationary stone.

During his lifetime, the process of photography was rapidly developing and artists were able to capture and study movement for the first time. Rodin, however, disliked the photographic outcomes, stating “It’s the artist who tells the truth and the photographer who lies. For in reality, time does not stand still.” (1911)

Pheidias, or other artists who worked on the Parthenon, depicted movement through the position of the body. Despite the limbs no longer existing, movement can still be detected by the angle of the torso and the drapes of the tunics or cloaks the figures wear. With this in mind, Rodin replicated the ancient master’s technique, particularly in his bronze sculpture of The Walking Man (1907). This decapitated body is full of energy, which makes it appear as though he has been walking purposefully for a length of time.

“It is not my Walking Man in himself that interests me but rather the thought of how far he has come and how far he has yet to go.”
– Rodin, 1907

 

 

 

Whilst Rodin has a reputation for lopping off heads and appendages, he also produced a number of sculptures with all their limbs intact, for instance, The Kiss and The Thinker. Another example is a monument commisioned by the city of Calais in honour of six men who were willing to sacrifice themselves to end Edward III’s siege on Calais during the Hundred Years’ War. Fortunately, as described by the medieval writer Jean Froissart (1337-1405), one of the wealthiest of the town leaders, Eustache de Saint Pierre, volunteered as a sacrifice, followed by five other burghers, however, their lives were spared by the intervention of England’s queen, Philippa of Hainault (1310-1369), who persuaded her husband to let them go, claiming that their deaths would be a bad omen for her unborn child.

Rodin’s monument, The Burghers of Calais (1884-9), depicts the six hostages in a range of stances from anguish to courage as they anticipated the threat of death. Each figure is dressed in sackcloth and their bodies and facial expressions reveal the tension and anxiety they felt. Along with Eustache de Saint Pierre, who looks like a worn-out old man, stands Andrieu d’Andres with his head in his hands, Jean d’Aire, Pierre de Wissant and his brother Jacques, and Jean de Fiennes.

The result of Rodin’s hard work was not exactly what the civic authorities had hoped for; they were expecting something that portrayed the burghers as heroic and patriotic. Nonetheless, The Burghers of Calais is a strong example of Rodin’s radical designs.

 

 

The British Museum’s exhibition contains the bulk of Rodin’s masterpieces, beginning with The Kiss and The Thinker, and ending with The Burghers of Calais and The Walking Man. Interspersed between Rodin’s works are several ancient marble sculptures, the majority of which the British Museum already owned.  What is interesting to note, aside from Rodin’s appropriation of the Parthenon sculptures, is the skill and technique used to produce such perfect figures.

It is safe to assume Rodin never actually worked the stone but rather produced plaster models for others to copy. Likewise, it is doubtful that Pheidias produced the Parthenon stones, most likely only being the designer. Nevertheless, the marble versions of Rodin’s sculptures are made to look exactly like his initial versions, complete with finger marks and indents.

31947471_10213870351584388_6564395979045339136_nTo engage visitors, the museum has provided examples of the tools used to sculpt marble and the process the stone goes through, from rough edges to a smooth finish. Everyone is invited to touch and feel examples of marble during different stages of the sculpting process.

The first stage labelled “roughing out” is the least delicate of the processes. With a hammer, tools such as a pitcher and a point are struck against the stone in order to remove large, unwanted chunks. The remaining stone has a rough texture where pieces have broken away. The sculptor then applies various chisels to refine the surface and gradually shape the stone into their desired appearance. Finally, the marble is finished with a rasp or emery stone, which creates a highly polished surface.

Another technique that Rodin employed was bronze casting. For this, the artist would produce his sculpture in clay with his hands, which would then be covered in plaster by studio assistants. When dry, the plaster could be carefully removed, thus producing moulds to be sent to a foundry where it would be filled with bronze to create the final outcome. This was a particularly expensive process and Rodin only used it when he was commissioned to do so, for instance, The Burghers of Calais.

From beginning to end, Rodin and the art of ancient Greece is set out by theme, finishing with Rodin’s ability to depict motion in his statues. It is fairly easy to navigate with a semi-one-way system ensuring that visitors get the opportunity to view everything in the exhibition. The only issue with this is in busy times queues form in order to read the information by each individual sculpture. Also, as photography is permitted, people are forever waiting to get a clear shot of the statues.

Although the sculptures are given the praise and justice they deserve, the information about Rodin himself is rather limited. Rodin is described as a radical sculptor who was not appreciated as much during his lifetime as he was after his death. Now considered one of the greatest sculptors of the 19th and 20th centuries, Rodin was ridiculed for his ideas, which were simultaneously modern and antiquated.

The information provided by the museum is only in relation to Rodin’s work or his response to the Parthenon sculptures. Missing are details about his upbringing, family life and personal factors that help connect visitors with the artist. Granted, the British Museum focuses on antiquity rather than art, but it would have been beneficial to know more about Rodin’s history. There is barely any reference to his models, particularly his lovers Gwen John (1876-1939) and Camille Claudel (1864-1943). Nor is there any meaningful acknowledgement of his 53-year relationship with Rose Beuret, whom he finally married in 1917, a mere two weeks before her death. Rodin died in November of the same year after suffering a severe bout of influenza.

“At certain times, he simply stands before his relics, meditating … How his fingers tremble when he touches these old stones!”
– Gustave Coquiot, 1917

Essentially, Rodin and the art of ancient Greece is as much a celebration of the ancient Parthenon sculptures as it is a reflection on Rodin’s work. There is something of interest for both the historian and the artist. Although not particularly educational, it makes up for this with the brilliance and awe-inspiring nature of the sculptures on show. It is a fantastic opportunity to see Rodin’s most famous works up close and to appreciate the detail in the art of the ancient Greeks.

Rodin and the art of ancient Greece organised by the British Museum with Musée Rodin, Paris is on show until 29th July 2018. Tickets are priced at £17 per person, although discounts for certain visitors are available. Members of the British Museum can visit for free with a valid pass.

Out of Austria

Marking the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss (annexation of Austria) on 12th March 1938
14th March – 29th April 2018

On Saturday 12th March 1938, German troops marched into Austria unopposed; Hitler was now in control. Although many Austrians welcomed the Wehrmacht with cheering, Nazi salutes and waving flags, this invasion made the country a dangerous place for thousands of people, particularly Jews. Between 1933 when Hitler began to gain power and 1945 when the era of National Socialism came to an end, approximately 130,000 Jews escaped from Austria, 30,000 of whom found refuge in Great Britain. Within this grand total, a number of artists crossed The Channel to safety and, in remembrance of the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss Österreichs, the Ben Uri Gallery produced an exhibition of over 40 works by a score of these refugees.

outside-e1471442834671The Ben Uri Gallery, established in 1915 by the Russian émigré artist Lazar Berson, is dedicated to celebrating the work and lives of migrant minorities. Originally an art venue for Jewish immigrant craftsmen, the gallery’s mission is to be known as “The Art Museum for Everyone” with no ethnic, religious or other barriers.

The gallery was named after Bezalel Ben Uri or Bezalel son of Uri from the tribe of Judah who was an immigrant craftsman in the Bible. He was the master artisan in charge of creating the tabernacle for the spirit of the Lord to dwell as well as building the Ark of the Covenant, a gold-covered wooden chest in which to place the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.
– Exodus 31:1-6

As a registered charity and the only specialist art museum in Europe that focuses on the issues of identity and migration through the visual arts, the Ben Uri Gallery takes every opportunity to not only showcase the artworks of migrant minorities but to tell the world their story. Although only a small building, the curators of the exhibition Out of Austria utilised the space to display a variety of different types of art, such as paintings, graphics, sculptures and ceramics. Very few of the Austrian artists are still alive, therefore, the exhibit also served as a museum of the annexation of Austria.

Anschluss was essentially an inevitable event for the idea of grouping all the German-speaking countries together had been a subject of discussion since the ending of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Austrian people were split between wanting to merge with Germany and staying loyal to the Habsburg Monarchy despite its collapse in 1918. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, the government in Austria was targetted with propaganda advocating for an Anschluss to the German Reich, including the constant repetition of the phrase Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer (“One People, One Empire, One Leader”).

Gradually, the Austrian government withdrew, allowing Hitler to make his move to create a union between his birth country Austria and Germany, an “all-German Reich“. This had been his aim since 1925 when he wrote in his autobiography Mein Kampf, “German-Austria must be restored to the great German Motherland … People of the same blood should be in the same Reich.”

Some Austrian-born Jews began seeking refuge as early as 1933, five years before the Anschluss, as a result of Hitler’s anti-Semitic legislation. Others fled after the event in an attempt to find a place of safety, passing through various European countries, finally settling in Britain. With no homeland, livelihood or familiar culture, it was a challenge for all refugees to reestablish their lives and careers, including painters, sculptors and so forth. This exhibition not only showed the works of these artists but examined their struggles and experiences as they began to rebuild their lives.

Out of Austria was divided into sections, grouping artworks by theme rather than by artist. Some of the works express the reality of the internment many Jews faced on reaching British shores. Between 1940 and 1941, many refugees were held as “enemy aliens” in camps such as Huyton in Liverpool and the Hutchinson and Onchan camps on the Isle of Man. Despite the circumstances, the artists displayed in this gallery refused to let it stop them from doing what they do best – creating art. With limited resources, artists used whatever they could get their hands on.

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Portrait of a Man: Wilhelm Hollitscher, Dachinger, 1940

One of the artists caught up in Churchill’s decree to “collar the lot” of Jewish refugees was Hugo Dachinger (1908-95), occasionally known as “Puck” who immigrated to Britain via Denmark in 1938. For the first two years, Dachinger was able to live in relative safety, however, after Churchill’s decision in June 1940 to detain “enemy aliens”, Dachinger was interred in Huyton Camp for five months, followed by a final two months in Mooragh Camp on the Isle of Man. Despite his incarceration, Dachinger continued to paint, eventually holding an exhibition of the works produced during these months entitled Art Behind Barbed Wire.

Dachinger was an Austrian Jew born in Gmunden, Upper Austria who had spent three years of study at the Leipzig School of Arts and Crafts before moving to Vienna to work as a graphic designer. He also patented a system of moveable type and co-founded the successful but short-lived Transposter Advertising Ltd firm.

Whilst in the British camps, Dachinger completed a bountiful portfolio of work, which included landscapes, scenes of the everyday life within the confines of the eight-metre high barbed wire, posters and coloured portraits. The example of Dachinger’s work owned by the Ben Uri gallery was painted during the third month of his internment. Titled Portrait of a Man, it is thought that the elderly sitter was one of the intellectuals, either a writer or an artist named Wilhelm Holitscher, who Dachinger socialised within the camp.

Limited to resources that he could find in the camp, Dachinger used newspaper sheets as his canvas, preferring The Times over others on account of the better quality paper. Unable to purchase paints, Dachinger and other artists had to use whatever equipment they had brought with them or invent their own pigments by melting and combining various ingredients. For example, he made ersatz paint by grounding brick dust or food with the olive oil from sardine tins. On other occasions, Dachinger mixed toothpaste and watercolours, which can be seen in the hair of Portrait of a Man. To produce black charcoal, wood, such as twigs from trees, were burnt to ashes.

 

One of the themes that was explored in the exhibition Out of Austria was the prevailing mother and child trope that has appeared in artworks throughout history. It is usually associated with Catholicism and the representation of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child, an unusual choice for Jewish artists to depict, however, perhaps these artists who had fled their homeland were drawn to this subject on account of their separation from their families. Amongst the artworks exhibited in this section were sketches, photographs, ceramics and sculptures.

One of the sculptures, lent from a private collection, was fashioned from bronze by the Austrian-born Georg Ehrlich (1887-1966). A year before the Anschluss, Ehrlich and his wife fled from the Austrian capital to the British capital where he remained for the rest of his life, excluding a brief internment in one of the camps. Although he had trained as a graphic designer at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, Ehrlich had established himself as a sculptor by 1923.

Ehrlich mainly restricted his sculptures to animals and children, however, also produced several war memorials including one for the Garden of Rest at Coventry. It is likely that Ehrlich’s sculptures provided the money he and his wife needed in order to live comfortably in their adopted country. Standing Boy, displayed as part of the exhibition, sold for £200 in 1941, the most expensive of any of the works bought at that time.

Another sculptor who found safety on the British Isles was Wilhelm “Willi” Soukop (1907-95), the son of a Moravian shoemaker, who fled from Vienna as early as 1934. Although he was deported and interred in Canada in 1940, he returned to London nine months later establishing himself as a teacher at various art schools. His post-war sculpture Mother and Child (1947), lent to the gallery for this exhibition, was purchased by the University of Chichester in 1952 where it usually sits above the altar in the University Chapel.

 

Continuing with the theme of mother and child, Bettina (1903-85), the wife of the aforementioned Georg Ehrlich, launched a new career as a children’s author and illustrator as a result of fleeing to London in 1938. By 1940, Bettina had penned and illustrated her first book Poo-Tsee, the Water Tortoise, which was followed by a further 20 books during her lifetime. As well as writing her own stories, Bettina worked as an illustrator for other authors including the American writer Virginia Haviland (1911-88).

A copy of Haviland’s Favorite Fairy Tales Told in England had been lent to the Ben Uri Gallery specifically for the Out of Austria exhibition, which was displayed in a glass case, opened to a page containing two elegant pen and ink illustrations. Included nearby was an initial study for an illustration that was never got used for the story Molly Whuppie in which the small girl, Molly, steals a giant’s purse from under his pillow whilst he sleeps.

Although these books and illustrations were produced after the end of World War Two and have no direct connection to the events of the Anschluss, they go to show the success Bettina achieved as a result of fleeing her home country. Had she remained in Austria, chances are she would have ended up in a Nazi concentration camp and possibly never seen again. By abandoning everything she was familiar with, she and her husband not only survived but created a positive future.

 

The exhibition Out of Austria ended with a selection of post-war artworks produced by Austrian-Jewish refugees. Some of these had returned to Austria or other countries in Europe, whereas, others decided to make Britain their permanent home. Regardless of where they ended up, they continued painting, sculpting and so forth, adopting new methods that evolved as a result of the war. Abstract art emerged as artists began to come to terms with the horrors of war, needing a suitable method of expressing their emotions. Political anxieties were also at the forefront of people’s minds but experiences of Nazi Germany made many wary of speaking or visualising their opinions in clear, obvious manners.

The Ben Uri Gallery selected works that were not predominantly war focused, instead emphasising the determination of the Austrian immigrants to persevere with their artistic careers. From fleeing their homes, facing several months in British camps, scavenging for resources, the determination of these artists to carry on when they could so easily have given up is an inspiration to all craftsmen today.

Despite the exhibition being in honour of the memory of the annexation of Austria, it was interesting to view a range of themes and styles rather than visual representations of war. Out of Austria was a personal insight into individual artists – unique human beings – instead of a formal, grave account of the Anschluss, although accurate facts and figures were also given.

It was refreshing to note a large number of female artists amongst the 20 or so featured in the exhibition. Women have generally been written out of the history of art and are only just beginning to receive the recognition they deserve. Anschluss affected both men and women, everyone was equal in this respect.

Out of Austria finished on 29th April, however, the Ben Uri Gallery hosts a number of exhibitions throughout the year that celebrates the lives of various individuals and groups of refugees. Regardless of who the future exhibitions focus on, visitors can expect a well thought out display that truly expresses the personalities and lives of the artists despite events they have been through.

The next exhibition to take place at the Ben Uri Gallery will be Adi Nes: Bible Stories beginning on 22nd May until 10th June 2018.

Modigliani

Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (1884-1920) was an Italian painter, sculptor and draughtsman who spent the majority of his working career in Paris. Almost a century after his death, the Tate Modern in London is holding the biggest display of Modigliani’s work in the UK to date, looking back at the artist’s productive, albeit brief, life. With over 100 artworks produced in Modigliani’s distinctive style, this exhibition contains some of the professed most memorable artworks of the 20th century.

“The life of Modigliani, wandering artist, so often resembles a legend, it is difficult to determine fact from fiction.”

-Arthur Pfannstiel, 1929

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Photo: Modigliani

Modigliani died at the age of 35 after a fourteen-year career as an artist. Due to his early demise and his rumoured lifestyle, there has been a lot of incorrect speculation about his character. He was deemed as socially unconventional and earned a reputation as the archetypal romantic painter, starving in a cramped living space, whilst falling victim to alcohol and drugs. Within this exhibition, the Tate Modern attempts to biographically outline his life alongside his intense and controversial artwork.

Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Livorno, Italy, Modigliani was a rather sickly child, suffering from a handful of illnesses, including Tuberculosis. His mother, at risk of spoiling her son, encouraged his passion for art, which led to him receiving a years education at Micheli’s Art School in 1898, run by the local artist Guglielmo Micheli (1866-1926). This was Modigliani’s first form of artistic instruction, which, naturally given the school’s location, focused on the study of techniques and themes of Italian Renaissance art. Although Modigliani would quickly develop his own style, evidence of his former training can be seen in his paintings, for example, the linear grace of his work resembles that of Botticelli (1445-1510), whereas, his focus on reclining nudes may have stemmed from Titian (1488-1576), who was one of the first artists to produce paintings of this nature.

Modigliani’s personal style began developing almost simultaneously with his move to Paris in 1906. Penniless, Modigliani settled in a commune in Montmartre, where he absorbed ideas from other artists in the area. He was particularly influenced by works he saw by the late Cézanne, adopting the simplicity of loose brushstrokes and method of colour handling. Modigliani is a significant example of the way exposure to new people and places affect artists.

Evidence of Modigliani’s impoverished lifestyle can be seen at the beginning of the exhibition. On more than one occasion, he used both sides of the canvas for different paintings, implying that he did not have enough money to afford new canvases. An example is The Cellist (1909), which contains Portrait of Constantin Brancusi (1909) on its reverse. In other works, ghostly faces can be seen through the bright paint as a result of Modigliani reusing old canvases.

 

Between 1911 and 1913, Modigliani put painting aside in favour of sculpture. At least two dozen were produced within this time period, several of  whichthe Tate Modern has on display. At this time in France, European artists were drawn to museums containing a wide range of historic art and antiquities, particularly from ancient civilisations in Africa. The Egyptian style was a particular favourite of Modigliani, which he replicated in his own carved heads by mimicking the clean lines and elongated facial features.

 

It is thought that Modigliani stole blocks of limestone from building sites to use for his sculptures. It was a far more expensive pursuit than painting, which may be one reason why he abandoned the project. Another reason may have been the outbreak of World War One, which would have restricted his access to materials, but, the most likely explanation for returning to painting was the effect the dust from the carved limestone was having on his weakened lungs. However, these few years spent sculpting brought a new dimension to his artwork.

The distinctive style of portraiture that Modigliani has become recognised for encompasses many of the elements that featured in his sculptures. Rather than painting the sitter as he saw him or her, Modigliani altered their appearances with swan-like necks and almond-shaped eyes. He often left the eyes blank with no discernible iris or pupil. Although not intentional, this makes the portraits look unnerving, like creatures out of a Doctor Who episode.

 

In 1916, Modigliani became friends with the art dealer Léopold Zborowski (1889-1932) and his wife Anna (1885-1978) – both of their portraits are part of this exhibition. Zborowski encouraged Modigliani to go down a new route: painting the female nude. Painting the naked body was nothing new in the art world, however, the way in which Modigliani approached it caused some controversy amongst art patrons.

The models who posed for these paintings dominated the canvas, often making direct eye-contact with the viewer. This indicates the changes occurring in the lives of women at the beginning of the 20th century. Women were more independent and had more say about their bodies. To further emphasise the point, Modigliani went against tradition and included pubic hair in his compositions, showing the true female form and not the idealised male preference. Unfortunately, these paintings were censored by a police commissioner on the grounds of indecency. Twelve of these nudes have been located and loaned to the Tate Modern.

As the exhibition nears its end, visitors see some of the works produced within Modigliani’s final years. As well as this, the exhibition narrative takes a more personal tone, revealing the more private life of the painter. Modigliani travelled to Nice in 1918 to avoid the end of the war and to alleviate his worsening health problems. With him came his pregnant partner, Jeanne Hébuterne (1898-1920) who bore him a daughter of the same name (1918-84). Jeanne became the principal subject of his artwork, however, whilst in the French Riviera, he painted local children and friends, opting for warm Mediterranean colours. Arguably, these are some of his strongest works.

 

The quality of Modigliani’s paintings, however, are a stark contrast to the direction his life was taking. He never made much money from painting, and anything he did earn fueled his growing addiction to drugs and alcohol. Although he continued to paint, his health was deteriorating rapidly and frequently suffered alcohol-induced blackouts. None of this is evident in Modigliani’s final self-portrait. Instead, he looks like a professional, confident painter, well-dressed with paint palette in hand. His dapper appearance initially made him seem reserved and asocial at the beginning of his career, however, his reputation changed rapidly, resulting in the rakish vagabond he ended his life as.

Destroyed by his own self-indulgence, Amedeo Modigliani died on 24th January 1920 in the Hôpital de la Charité where he spent his final days suffering from tubercular meningitis. His fiancee, who was expecting his second child, took her own life the day after his funeral, jumping out of a fifth-story window.

Art historians suggest that if Modigliani had not neglected his health, he could have lived to produce great masterpieces. Modigliani kept his illness secret claiming the symptoms were a result of his drunkenness. At that time in Paris, drunkards were tolerated but disease carriers were not.

 

When Modigliani died, he was well-known amidst the artist communities of Montmartre and Montparnasse, however, he was still unheard of throughout the rest of the world. His posthumous fame began two years later after his work featured in an exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. This was shortly followed by the publication of a biography by André Salmon (1881-1969) titled Modigliani, sa vie et son œuvre, which introduced Modigliani to people further afield.

Modigliani has been labelled an original artist of his time who modernised figurative painting, however, it is difficult to say how good a painter he was. In comparison to the traditional form of painting, Modigliani’s work is rather poor. On the other hand, modern artists and critics were beginning to develop a taste for unconventional ideas.

Some may say Modigliani’s loose brush strokes are expressive, whereas other people may declare they look rushed. One of his sitters noted that “the portrait was finished after a few hours without him stopping for even a minute.” Others recall that he was always drawing, sometimes ten sketches in one evening. It was almost as if he was addicted to painting in the same way he was addicted to alcohol.

The Tate Modern removes the focus from each individual painting, preferring to reflect on the styles and techniques used during various periods of Modigliani’s life. Regardless of visitors’ artistic preferences, there is something interesting in learning about the artist, his influences, and what led him to paint in this manner.

To delve deeper into the artist’s past, the Tate Modern offers a virtual reality experience, for those willing to queue for half an hour, which takes individuals on a tour of Modigliani’s final studio in Paris. Another option is an audio guide which provides detailed information about specific artworks around the exhibition. The latter, however, is not included in the price of the entry fee.

At £17.70, the exhibition is rather pricey and therefore may not be worth visiting if Modigliani’s artwork is not a favourite style. For members, however, entry is free therefore nothing is lost by viewing the exhibition, and, who knows, it may be more interesting than expected. It is certainly intriguing to find out about an artist’s background, and Modigliani’s life is a heartbreaking story.

Modigliani will remain open until 2nd April 2018. Tickets can be purchased online or on arrival at the gallery. Under twelves go free with a paying adult.

Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth

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Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958.

“One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.” Jasper Johns, 2006.

Jasper Johns (b.1930) is an American painter, sculptor and printmaker recognised for his iconic representations of the US flag. The Royal Academy of Arts in London has produced a thorough exhibition that provides insight into the artist’s life as well as his distinctive art style. Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ contains over 150 paintings and sculptures that Johns has completed throughout the past 60 years. Beginning with his earliest existing work (he destroyed everything prior to 1954), the exhibition explores the techniques and purposes behind his artwork and documents the gradual changes Johns employed as he developed as an artist.

At the beginning of Jasper Johns’ career, the art world was in the midst of the Abstract Expressionism movement where artists were vibrantly communicating their inner selves to the public through symbolic paintings. Johns, on the other hand, avoided all forms of existing art factions by painting things exactly as they are seen, destroying the idea that art must have a hidden meaning. By producing images of universally familiar objects, Johns wanted to represent things that are often seen but never really looked at in great detail. His idiosyncratic ideas have helped to raise him to the status of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.

To say Johns was interested in painting the American flag is an understatement. Already this year, one of Johns’ flags has featured in an exhibition at the British Museum and the Royal Academy have collated a handful of different ones. In total, Johns painted the flag 27 times, used it within ten sculptures, drew it 50 times and produced 18 prints. He claims that “One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” This suggests that his interest in the flag was originally nothing more than an urge to paint it, however, it later garnered a much stronger purpose and role within his artwork.

Beginning with the flag, Johns began a series of paintings that question things the mind is already aware of. He appropriated objects that the majority of people, at least in America, would have been familiar with since childhood. However, despite the lack of a symbolic meaning, Johns attempted to make the known unfamiliar to its audience. Flag (1958) is a realistic painting of the American flag (the one they had at the time before Alaska and Hawaii joined in 1959) with the stripes and stars exactly proportionate to the real thing. What Johns was interested in was whether other people saw it as a painting or as a flag – perhaps both. What is the expectation of a painting? Being presented on a stretched canvas, Flag cannot be raised on a flagpole and therefore cannot function as a true flag, therefore, one can argue that it is only a painting. On the other hand, if someone were to ask what the American flag looked like, showing them a Jasper Johns version would be just as good as showing them a photograph of the real thing – does that make the painting a flag?

To think too much about the function of Flag causes a lot of confusion and can never truly be resolved – there is no right or wrong answer. One thing that cannot be debated is its material; it truly is a painting. The brushstrokes produced by the artist’s hand are still evident when standing in front of the canvas. Johns uses a technique called encaustic, which he found much more beneficial than more traditional approaches. Encaustic painting involves mixing colour pigments with molten wax, which, although rather laborious to make, is quick drying and resists the effects of ageing and other damaging elements. It is easy to layer paintings using this medium and this can be seen in the majority of Johns’ paintings around the gallery. Today, Johns is one of the only remaining artists to employ this method.

As well as tangible objects, Jasper Johns painted other everyday motifs prompting similar questions about perception. Again, there were no hidden meanings behind these artworks and they could often function in the same way as their original counterpart. The RA displays painted maps and targets by the artist that, although evidently painted, can also function as a map or a target. Another interest of Johns are numbers, familiar figures that are seen all the time but rarely thought of as more than a piece of information.

Johns strips these numbers of their function in his charcoal drawing 0 Through 9 (1961) in which he has positioned each number on top of the other until left with a mess of lines and shape. It is still possible, by studying the artwork, to detect each individual number, but they have effectively been rendered purposeless. They neither inform or function as a number is traditionally meant to do. But, has that stopped them from being numbers?

As Johns continued to consider what a painting was rather than what it represented he began to move away from the traditional usage of the canvas. Often using collage as well as paint, the various layers in his works are obvious to the viewer and reveal how the piece was made. To draw attention to the canvas, Johns cuts, crops or extends it to make its presence more obvious. This is a technique he has employed in creating Painting with Two Balls (1960). By splitting the canvas and wedging in two wooden balls, Johns reveals the wall behind the painting. This emphasises that the viewer is seeing a painting on canvas, attached to a wall; there is nothing more meaningful about it.

Johns’ visual perception of everyday objects extends to his experimentation with sculpture, however, this is where the idea of the function becomes obscured. There’s no doubt that Johns was skilled at what he did, particularly in the case of Painted Bronze (1960) – one of the highlights of the exhibition. In a glass case, almost concealed amongst all the other art in the room, is what appears to be a selection of wooden paintbrushes in an old coffee tin – something that would be typically found in Johns’ studio. However, it is actually a hyper-realistic representation of brushes and a tin sculpted and cast in bronze, and then painted in oils. It is only by looking closely at the tin that the oil paint becomes noticeable. The words “Savarin Coffee”, for example, have demonstrably been painted by hand.

Unlike his flags and maps which could function as both a painting and an object, Painted Bronze has no physical purpose. Despite it looking like a tin full of paintbrushes, it would be impossible to pick one up and use it. This may be why Johns opted for the title Painted Bronze as opposed to Savarin Coffee Can or Tin of Paint Brushes.

Not only did Johns’ coffee can move away from the form and function theme, it was one of the first artworks that revealed something about the artist himself. Whereas his previous works had focused on everyday objects familiar to all, these brushes were more personal to Johns and were something he needed in his life to be able to live an artistic lifestyle. This sculpture marks a turning point in Johns’ career.

Until 1961, Jasper Johns had been in an intimate relationship with the artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), another pioneering artist of the time. The end of the seven-year romance resulted in a strong sense of emotional loss, which began to become evident in Johns’ work. Struggling with his personal feelings, he turned to language and words and began to incorporate these into his paintings. As a result, he became particularly interested in the philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) who put forth the opinion that conceptional confusions surrounding language are at the root of most philosophical problems. Writing about semantics, Wittgenstein suggests that the meanings of words are in how they are used rather than what they are supposed to describe.

A couple of paintings in the exhibition may remind visitors of a particular brain game in which the task is to say the colour a word is written in and not the world itself. For example, if the word “black” is written in the colour red, one must, therefore, say “red”. In Jasper Johns’ False Start (1959) paint has been wildly splattered over the canvas in the primary colours: red, yellow and blue. Layered over the interlocking patches are the words “red”, “yellow” or “blue”, however, never on their respective colours. This explores Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and the meanings of words. What we see and what we read are two opposing details. Many people have been intrigued by this painting, and in 2006, it became the most expensive painting by a living artist, selling at $80 million.

During the 1980s, Jasper Johns became more personal with his works and his paintings began to include symbolism and meaning. However, this did not revert to the thought processes of Abstract Expressionism; it was still a unique endeavour on Johns’ part.

“In my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions. This was partly to do with my feelings about myself and partly to do with my feelings about painting at the time. I sort of stuck to my guns for a while, but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must simply drop the reserve.” Jasper Johns, 1984

The paintings Johns produced in this era are more meaningful for himself than anyone else viewing the painting. Johns was having trouble sleeping because he had too much on his mind. In order to sort through these thoughts, he painted six canvases titled Racing Thoughts in which he places his mental pictures onto a representation of a bathroom wall – implying he is thinking whilst taking a bath – to create a form of mood board.

The personal iconography in these paintings reflects on Johns’ past, his memories and his artistic influences. Occasionally they are metaphorical items, for instance, a skull which may represent death, but many are direct references to specific parts of his life. In one painting, located at the very beginning of the exhibition, Johns has combined a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and photograph of an art dealer, Leo Castelli, with other artistic allusions. This suggests that Johns admired the artist Leonardo Da Vinci, and the inclusion of Castelli is obvious since he was the man who gave Johns his first art show.

Despite the change in Jasper Johns’ artwork, he has not rejected the idea of perception and illusion. Within the six Racing Thoughts, he has experimented with trompe-l’œil with the inclusion of a commemorative vase for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. At first, all that may be seen is a white vase, but on further inspection, the negative space reveals the profiles of two faces: the Queen and Prince Philip.

These instances of optical illusion feature in later works, including Spring (1986) (pictured above) which was part of a series of four depicting the seasons. These are also the nearest Johns has got to a self-portrait, using a tracing of his shadow to make his presence known. Each painting contains objects, colours and trompe-l’œil that Johns associates with the four different times of the year.

As suggested by the title of the exhibition, Something Resembling Truth, the relationship between reality and illusion is Jasper Johns primary concern that he tackles in his paintings. Although he did not intend to conjure any subliminal meanings, many have wandered the gallery attempting to interpret what they saw before them. Each spectator may have produced their own subjective opinion based on their own knowledge and experience. However, no opinion is wrong when it comes to art. Johns may have been trying to paint something in reality with no emotions attached, but if it evokes something else in its audience, that is no less of a reality.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy has come to a close, but it has been well received by many visitors and friends of the academy. True to their typical style, the curators provided written information around the gallery to explain some of the artworks and also provide an insight into Johns’ life and thought process. With an audio guide that was included in the price of the ticket, the RA excelled themselves, producing something that was as informative as it was entertaining. This is something that remains consistent throughout the exhibitions hosted by the RA. Some people may not be moved by the artwork, however, the background information and knowledge make it worth a visit.

Many exhibitions take place throughout the year at the Royal Academy, so keep checking the website to see if there is anything that takes your interest.

Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in collaboration with The Broad, Los Angeles.

Art in the Park

It has already been five years since London held the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. Years of preparation took place beforehand, building new venues and creating a sporting complex for an event that would only last a few weeks. However, unlike the situation in Rio after the last Olympic games, London has not abandoned this expensive project and is continuing to use and develop the Olympic Park today.  Christened the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in commemoration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012, the area was developed into the largest urban park in Western Europe by restoring wetland habitats and cultivating native plants.

Of course, the original Olympic arenas are still in use and sit within the park in all their quirky architectural glory. The London Aquatics Centre has been open to the public since 2014 as has the Lee Valley VeloPark at the opposite end of the park. The Olympic Stadium, now known as the London Stadium, is home to West Ham United Football Club and British Athletics, both making use of its multi-purpose arena.

During the construction of the Olympic Park, designers and landscapers were fully aware of the impact the project would have on the local area. In order for Londoners to benefit from the park, they chose to incorporate creative features so that the final outcome would not be completely sports oriented. In 2011, The Legacy List charity was set up to support the games but also to create connections with the general public by commissioning art installations and educational enterprises.

The art installations are still displayed in the park, reflecting on the landscape, history and local memories. Artists from far and wide were invited to participate, resulting in some unconventional outcomes. Some may not be much to look at whilst others may be easily overlooked, however, they all have interesting stories behind them.

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ArcelorMittal Orbit

Due to its 560 acres, it is not possible to see all the artworks in the park on one visit, but there are a few that are unmissable from the moment of entry. In fact, one can be seen from a distance and has attracted many visitors since its re-opening to the public in 2016. The ArcelorMittal Orbit stands at 114.5-metres and is the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom. Originally commissioned by the Mayor of London in 2012. Sir Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s intricate continuous loop of recycled steel has been converted into a 178-metre tunnel slide that takes daring visitors spinning around the structure twelve times at the same speed it takes World Record Holder Wayde van Niekerk to run 400-metres.

The Mayor, Boris Johnson, originally commissioned the construction because he thought the park needed “something extra”. Designers were given the task of blueprinting ideas for an Olympic Tower from which Kapoor and Balmond’s concept was chosen as the winner. This brings about the question as to what the other designs looked like and why this contemporary eye-sore was selected above them all. At least the views from the top promise to be impressive.

The other fairly noticeable artistic feature in the park is Keith Wilson’s Steles. Thirty-five coloured poles ranging in height between 3 and 5-metres are found along the side of the Waterworks River which flows through the park before joining up with the River Lea. Although 8-kilometres of waterways flow through the park, Wilson’s Steles are only situated in a small section. Painted in the colours of the Olympic rings, these Steles look like giant crayons, however, are meant to resemble nautical waymarkers. These were the first art installation to be completed in the park and have a physical function as well as an aesthetic one. Due to their position in the water, they can easily be used as mooring posts for barges and small boats that float along the river. Alternatively, they make good roosting posts for the local black herons.

Other art installations are less noticeable until you stumble across them whilst exploring the park. Some may not even be noticed unless you are aware of them, to begin with. Hidden behind the Aquatics Centre is a utility building that has been used as a canvas by the artist DJ Simpson. Commissioned by the Olympic Delivering Authority, Simpson’s peculiar artwork, Open Folds, was installed in March 2012 to represent the contours of the neighbouring landscape. Constructed of dark anodised aluminium, Open Folds hugs the outside walls of the building. Simpson has punched out holes and formed patterned lines to emphasise the varying shape of the surrounding terrain.

In the main section of the park, another building has been used to display an installation of 2000 wooden cubes. One wall of the Podium Café is the location of Pixel Wall by the London-based design collective known as Tomato. The interactive wall allows visitors to turn the cubes, which have a mix of light and dark surfaces, in order to create different pixellated images or words. This is something that appeals to most visitors who cannot resist touching and playing with the cubes and discovering their creative potential. Despite clear instructions not to, vandals have unfortunately written on the cubes, ruining the overall aesthetic of the artwork.

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The Fun Palace by Caroline Bird.

All forms of art were involved with the development of the Olympic Park and, although they all resulted in something tangible, they did not necessarily begin that way. As well as artists and designers, poets were invited to contribute their thoughts and words. On a wooden shed by the South Lawn is an engraved verse from a poem written by Caroline Bird.

Titled The Fun Palace, Bird’s poem narrates the life of Joan Littlewood (1914-2002), a theatre director who was heavily involved with the Theatre Royal in Stratford. During her career, she dreamt up the idea of a “Fun Palace” – an arts and education centre. She envisioned this building on the site of the park, however, her ambition never came to fruition. In honour of what would have been her 100th birthday in 2014, Caroline Bird penned this poem in celebration of everything she did for the artistic community in Stratford.

Other poets have also produced verses to be displayed around the park that reflect on the local area and its history. Lemn Sissay, a local author, was the first to be commissioned to write for the London Olympics. He provided three poems – Living Is In; Spark Catchers; and Spark – which are all exhibited in a similar manner to Bird’s poem. Carol Ann Duffy, who was appointed the Poet Laureate in 2009, also contributed with a poem about Eton Manor, a former leisure centre in the area.

John Burnside, a Scottish poet, was inspired by the suffragette, Sylvia Pankhurst, who was known to cycle around the area whilst campaigning for women’s equality. With this significant piece of history in mind, Burnside wrote Bicycling for Ladies, which has also been etched into wood, along with visual imagery.

Sylvia Pankhurst

I dreamed you came again

through the smog of time,

match-girls and broom-makers,

cycling from street to street

with The Women’s Dreadnought;

the houses lit for miles,

like beacons

and a true friend

– Extract from Bicycling For Ladies

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Made of glass and steel, and standing 9-metres high, Monica Bonvicini‘s artwork is hard to miss from the road passing the Copper Box Arena. Functioning as a mirror by day and sporting neon lights by night, the Italian artist’s contribution has an ambiguous meaning. Is it referring to the athletes at the Olympic Games, or is it instructing people to run for their lives?

 

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Freeze Frame by Neville Gabie

 

Not all the artwork that has featured in the Olympic Park remains on public display. In 2012, Neville Gabie was appointed artist in residence for a period of 16 months. During this time, he created a series of work using film and photography. In one film, he recorded his attempt to sit on every seat in the stadium. His most imaginative outcome, however, is the recreation of George Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884). By carefully placing people in high visibility jackets, Gabie reimagined the famous painting in the modern setting of the Olympic Park.

Although not commissioned as an art installation, there are two famous structures that attract many visitors and make great photograph opportunities. These are, of course, the Olympic Rings and the Paralympic Agitos. Located either side of the River Lea, these relics from the Games will remain as a reminder that the park was where the majority of the events took place. For whatever reason that you have gone to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, seeing the Rings and the Agitos is a must.

Despite being transformed into a recreational public parkland, it is impossible to erase the success London had in being the host city of the Olympic Games. Along with the Rings, Agitos, and arenas, facts and memories of the Games have been dotted around the park. The entrance near the Aquatics Centre has a series of facts spread over the pathway, reminding people what London and its athletes achieved, as well as informing the future generations. There is also an opportunity to try and beat Greg Rutherford’s long jump world record of 8.31-metres.

The park has been made child-friendly with the addition of playgrounds containing several different climbing frames, swings and slides to enjoy. These have been designed as abstractly as the buildings and structures surrounding them, in keeping with the contemporary appeal of the area. During the summer, Children can enjoy racing through the water fountains as they turn on and off at great speed.

The park, architecture, and artworks have not appealed to everyone, resulting in a lot of criticism, including in the national papers. The architecture critic for The Guardian expressed the opinion that “There is a frenzy of wacky light fittings, of playground installations, of seats, tree species, sculptural lumps of granite, kiosks, railings and coloured surfaces…It suffers from an Olympic syndrome, where everyone wants to be a Mo or a Jessica and make their mark … Great care was taken to make the Athletes’ Village aesthetically orderly, to the point where it began to resemble Ceausescu’s Bucharest: this eruption makes such efforts futile.”

It appears that the developers have tried too hard to make everything look modern and have ultimately created something that looks obscure and slightly alien. Unlike the natural parks around Britain, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park feels false and overcultivated. Attempts have been made to produce gardens of foreign plants, including those from Asia and the Southern Hemisphere, however, this increases the unnatural feel of the park. Granted, the park is clean, neat and well looked after, but it looks too perfect to be considered parklands. It does not help matters that between the arenas and different “green” sections is an abundance of concrete pathways. The roads crisscrossing the park are a nuisance too; it is impossible to forget you are in London.

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is still being developed as new installations and areas are added to improve visitors’ experience. No doubt more artwork and perplexing architecture will be added to the area over the coming years. With different events happening throughout the year, there is always something new to attract tourists to the area, making the park a worthy project.

Whether or not contemporary art appeals, it is still worth taking a trip to the Olympic Park. We are fortunate to have free access to a place where British history was made and, hopefully, always be remembered.

The park is a short walk from both Stratford Station and Stratford International Station. There are also many buses in the area, making the park easily accessible. Facilities are available for children, adults and disabled to ensure that everybody gets the most out of their visits. Numerous cafés and restaurants are on site and there are plenty of staff to help if you need directions or would like a tour of the park.

Download the Art in the Park field guide for more information about the art installations and where to find them.

Giacometti the Obscure

 

Man Pointing 1947 by Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966

Man Pointing, 1947, Tate, London

It has been twenty years since a large display of Giacometti’s surrealist sculptures have been seen in the UK, however, the Tate Modern has reintroduced them to the public with their latest exhibition. Tracing Giacometti’s career and evidencing his interest with different materials, the gallery unveils his immediately recognisable, unique style of sculpture as well as portrait painting, some of which have never been seen before.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was born in a small village in the Swiss Alps where he was surrounded by paintings produced by his post-impressionist artistic father. After a brief education at the École des Arts et Métiers in Geneva, Giacometti abandoned the taught naturalistic method of sculpture in favour of experimentation. His peculiar style developed further after temporarily joining the Surrealist movement in the early 1930s.

It was after the Second World War when Giacometti finally settled on the elongated style of figures seen in the Tate Modern’s exhibition. These fragile looking sculptures suggest existentially tragedy with their emaciated appearance. This may have been influenced by Giacometti’s friendship with the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Satre.

On entering room one of the exhibition, visitors are subjected to gruesome-looking heads shaped out of clay and plaster – Giacometti’s preferred material. It is obvious from the unevenness of the sculptures that they have been moulded by hand, the pressures of the fingertips evident on the facial features. Although the subject matter is plain to see, the roughness of the texture gives the outcomes a more abstract feel. The proportions of skull and physiognomy are not aligned, resulting in a ghoulish appearance.

The human body remains Giacometti’s main focus throughout his life, moving on from the head to include the rest of the skeletal structure. His full body sculptures give off a sense of unease with their rawness and frailty. Apart from the period when Giacometti worked in miniature, his human depictions are extremely out of proportion. Often the legs are twice the length of the body, and the arms dangle down, muscle-less in an awkward fashion. The statues are painfully thin and inhuman, looking as though, were they not cast in bronze, they could easily snap in half.

Giacometti restricted himself to a minimum of means, using his hands rather than tools to shape and sculpt his figures. He had found his style and stuck to it, putting great care and effort into the work he would be remembered for. Giacometti liked to depict the rawness of reality rather than the ideals of the subconscious mind. As a result, his work is chilling and more likely to leave people cold or nauseated instead of appreciative and awed.

Although Giacometti’s skeletal figures may not be all that appealing, he was still a great influence and impressed many people. However, this was largely on account of his personality and devotion to his work, rather than his outcomes. Simone de Beauvoir, a French writer declared “Success, fame, money – Giacometti was indifferent to them all.”

There were occasions, however, when Giacometti did have to think about money as a means of living, particularly during the 1930s. During this decade, he created art with the intention to sell, focusing on decorative objects such as vases, jewellery and wall reliefs. As the Tate reveals in a cabinet in the third room of the exhibition, these commodities were dissimilar to his bronze sculptures, but still had Giacometti’s unique touch. His gritty, hand-rendered style meant each object was unique, yet, unfortunately, not particularly attractive. However, they must have appealed to someone since they were featured in both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazine.

Despite the fact that sculpture was Giacometti’s primary technique, he also enjoyed painting. Painting was a significant part of his early life, but after moving to Paris, sculpture predominated all else. It was not until the conclusion of the Second World War that Giacometti made a welcome return to the paintbrush and easel. The final rooms of the exhibition display the portraits he produced in this latter period.

Unlike other artists, Giacometti was not interested in painting well-known people or taking commissions. Instead, he preferred to have his mother and brother sit for him, or close friends and acquaintances.

In the same way as his sculptures, Giacometti’s portraits feel raw and unfinished. His artistic style is so unique, it is easy to identify the paintings with his scultpures. The insubstatial, fragile representation of the human body is something which Giacometti portrays regardless of method or material.

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By drawing or painting, Giacometti was able to focus more on facial features and small details, something which was impractical on his wraith-like sculptures. And, although he restricted himself to a small palette, he was free to add touches of colour to his artworks.

Unlike the sculpted figures, it is possible to recognised the sitter (if you know who they are to begin with) represented on the canvas. They are also far more interesting to study. Expressive line work and range of tone add together to reveal a whole host of components to scrutinize.

The paintings, although somewhat abstract, are apprecibly more pleasant to view. Spectators are not subjected to, or repulsed by the nauseatingly skeletal framework of the figurines. Regrettably, there are a significant lack of these illustrations on display – the scultpure taking precedence.

The Tate Modern has done well to create a timeline of Alberto Giacometti’s life, from the beginning of his career until his death at the age of 65. Rather than detailing the works on display, the Tate has provided written information about different time periods and the effects the events within them had on his artistic developments.

Unfortunately, Giacometti’s distinctive techniques will not appeal to everyone; there is no beauty to be found, only intrigue at most. Unless you have a peculiar fascination with obscure scultpure, it is probably not worth paying the entry fee (unless you are a member, in which case you get in for free). This thus poses the question, how long will it be until Giacometti is forgetten about altogether?