Monthly Archives: November 2012

writing about art

What is this writer saying?

“Either way, the earlier images have become signifiers of an authenticity that replaces the gesture they represent, even as they attest to it. The authenticating image has become a fiction, and it is Chaimowicz’s recognition and exploitation of this condition that has taken his work from being a performance of late Romantic posturing to a meditation on the mythology of a lost original. A form of literary nostalgia has been reconfigured as a postmodern emblem of cultural reinvention.”

The words are from an article in November’s Art Monthly called The Documentary Effect, written by Mark Prince, an artist based in Berlin. Prince writes quite frequently for Art Monthly. He’s clearly a serious thinker about art. The article is about the way artists use chiefly photography, video and installation to question our understanding of what is real and what isn’t. Prince begins his article with a reference to Roland Barthes and draws on the post-modernist proposition that reality is a slippery concept and that we all bring our own interpretations to the text (or picture, or film). Therefore the artist or writer has no special privileges over the spectator or reader. The interpretation of either is equally valid. You might think that way lies madness. Accept the post modern analysis and no one could ever be certain about anything.

I’m interested in these ideas, not least because I think they undermine any suggestion that art should just be about reproducing what we (think) the world looks like. Post modernism might be a bit queasy about handing out laurels to individuals on account of their singular genius; perhaps not a bad thing given its the market that tends to be the blunt arbiter of what is prized. But I see (and maybe its a misreading) an affinity between post modernism’s dismissal of a singular interpretation of the scene and modernism’s rejection of Western academic standards and its gift to the artist of finding new and personal means to interpret the world around him or her.

The pity of it is, is that someone like Mark Prince is clearly better read than I am when it comes to these concepts but writes in such a punishingly dense style. The meaning behind the sentences quoted above might be clear enough, at least if you’ve taken the time to read your share of this sort of stuff, but wading through 2000 or so words of it can be exhausting.

Of course, compared to many of the other magazines you’ll find on W.H. Smiths shelves, Art Monthly is a pretty rarefied read (though actually you’ll not find Art Monthly in Smiths, not in Newcastle anyway, they may have a branch in Tate Modern or The Serpentine). So if you do buy it, your pretty intense when it comes to art and probably in a minority amongst the thousands who every year visit museums and galleries in Britain. All professions and all cults have their own special signs, rituals and language. Art Monthly is essentially a cult within the wider art going public. I wonder how many practicing artists bother to read it.

The ideas that the magazine often explores though deserve a wider public. They offer a way for everyone to look at the world differently, to make up their own mind and question the tabloid narrative at one end of the spectrum and the Hollywood one at the other. If only the writing was more easily intelligible and you could understand what the bloody hell the writers were saying.

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Line and shape

What is a head but an oval and further oval shapes within it. These drawings are an attempt to capture what a head is, do they succeed – who knows

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Picasso and modern British art

A common observation made of the exhibition Picasso and Modern British Art has been that the British artists represented have, next to Picasso, appeared to be also rans. Given that the selection includes Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Ben Nicholson and David Hockney its quite a damning assessment but I’m not sure its altogether fair.

Certainly Picasso’s energy and inventiveness is evident in all his work on show. One of the painting that has remained with me since going to see the exhibition is a modest still life, painted with a fairly limited palette, quite different in temperament from ‘The Three Dancers’ for instance which in size and ambition was always you suspect intended to be a major statement.¬† The little still life is just mesmerising however and Nicholson’s much larger still life sitting alongside do look rather stolid and maybe a bit dull. You can often spot Picasso’s line in Nicholson’s drawing but, as you might expect from someone living and working in Britain with its dull, damp weather, his colours are often muted, earths and ochres. I didn’t check the date of Picasso’s still life but it may well have been painted during one of his period in the Mediterranean. If so, no wonder then if it is brighter, livelier, more full of movement and organic form.

Another room is shared by Henry Moore and Picasso. Here again I suggest there are differences based in part at least on environment and temperament. There is a little bronze maquette Picasso produced for a monument (to Apollinaire I think) that apparently scandalised the judges with its eroticism. And indeed there is a palpable¬† sensuousness about the sculpture. Compared with the little bronze, Moore is more like a geographer or architect, his sculpture coolly mapping out forms and dividing space. It’s tempting to conclude that there is nothing of the Spaniard’s fiery temperament in the bluff Yorkshireman, but that’s probably just stereotyping.

Overall what I got from the exhibition, particularly in the earlier sections covering the period roughly from 1900 to the 1930’s was the sense discovery and experiment. So that even a relatively minor figure like Duncan Grant I think held his own with Picasso as both tried to create a new art drawing lessons from African art and other non-western sources. Certainly Picasso was soared away and left Grant behind in terms of achievement and impact but that only really matters if your approach to art is that its like a race with winners and losers, first and second divisions. Unfortunately, with the way the current art market operates for many major collectors that’s exactly what it is, to the detriment of the rest of us.

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