To Edinburgh at last weekend where we took in Dieter Roth’s diaries at the Fruitmarket Gallery and Van Gogh to Kandinsky, one of the ’blockbuster’ exhibitions for the Edinburgh Festival, on show at the Royal Scottish Academy.
Dieter Roth’s diaries has received excellent reviews. The first part of the exhibition is Solo Scenes, a set of 128 monitors playing videos of Roth, at work, sleeping, eating, in one scene he seems to be giving directions from his front door to a passing motorist. We even see him sitting reading on the toilet.
I’ve read tweets from people who have been moved to tears by the recordings, made during Roth’s last year before he died from a heart attack. I have to confess I felt somewhat less moved and found the display of notebooks and paper diaries in a room adjacent to the monitors and in the gallery upstairs to be much more affecting.
It’s a paradox of film I think, that it can show us what a person looked like, moved and sounded like but doesn’t give any sense of their physical being. For that you need to see the stuff they used. What they touched and handled or wore. Roth’s writing and drawing, his scribbles and doodles bring you much closer to the artist. I particularly liked his series of drawings, ’97 mutually accusing angel-destroyers and whiny swines’. It reminded me of surrealist automatic drawings and also Hans Bellmer’s although Roth’s drawings are not as obviously sexual in intent as Bellmer’s.
I’ve just watched a review of Roth’s diaries on BBC’s the Culture Show. It included an interview with Roth’s son who spoke about his fathers dislike of having his photograph taken and how difficult Solo Scenes was for Roth to make. Solo Scenes is his favourite work of his fathers. Perhaps I need to look again to see what I’ve missed first time.
As Alistair Sooke suggested in his Culture Show review, Roth is the kind of artist people think of when they complain about how rubbish contemporary art is. The proposition put forward in Kandinsky to Van Gogh appears to be that symbolist painting provided a stepping stone on the way to abstraction (abstraction being, if you adopt a linear approach to the story of modern art, a step on the road to conceptual art of the sort practiced by Roth and which neatly allows me to write about these two shows in the same blog).
At least that is how it appeared to me although I didn’t buy the catalogue, which doubtless offers a more subtly developed and maybe completely different argument. However, finishing on early abstract paintings by Mondrian and Kandinsky after rooms of fairly accessible landscape painting makes for a pretty clear proposition I think.
There are of course impressive works on show including a small, intensely coloured Van Gogh of a sower and Gauguin’s Jacob wrestling the Angel along with a couple of Munch’s (who is everywhere these days) However what struck me most forcibly was how much many of the paintings resembled, if not in handling or technique then in subject matter, idea and approach, the work in a local amateur art exhibition. In symbolist painting after symbolist painting the principle aim, by use of heightened colour, stylised drawing or dramatic perspective, appears to be to invest the landscape with a deeper romantic significance. And symbolist painting is, in part at least, about giving significant emotional resonance to certain colours or forms.
However it all seemed so reminiscent of the work you could typically see at the hanging of the annual art club show in the local library. Not that I want to appear sniffy about this. I largely agree with John Berger’s view that if such art is sentimental then it’s no more sentimental than much of the stuff you’ll see in a contemporary art show. And its probably a healthier sort of sentimentality. Berger defined sentimentality as a way of evading relevant facts. He doesn’t say what those facts might be but his essay does end with a call for revolutionary change. The conditions in a society dominated by capitalist interests and the inequalities and exploitation those interests give rise to are what was generally troubling Berger.
The symbolist painters may have considered that their art did engage with the wider social issues of the day (or not, I’m not sure if they were art for art types) but if they did it doesn’t now. And paintings that critique the iniquities in the system are not what art club painters typically produce. What the symbolists were doing was producing paintings because they were painters, just as Roth compulsively filmed himself or filled his diaries and notebooks because he was an artist and thats what he did. The question though is, is that enough?