Tag Archives: modernism

two figures, reclining

the long painting in the middle was begun about two weeks ago, finished it off today, poster paints on paper, pasted and stapled together, dimensions approx 80inches by 23inches…



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heiratic head of SC

A portrait of my friend Stephanie, a farewell gift on her leaving the charity we both work(ed) at.


Obviously there was never any chance of doing a straightforward naturalistic portrait, but whilst painting it I was increasingly drawn to Gaudier-Brzeska’s Heiratic Head of Ezra Pound as reference and much more so by the end, than the few photos I took before beginning the painting. Gaudier-Brzeska makes no attempt at a likeness of Pound. The sculpture seems more about the force of Pound’s personality, but maybe its not even that, and what Gaudier-Brzeska was doing was creating another Ezra Pound completely, one that exists not in any mimetic sense but one equal to the Ezra Pound that happened to be made of flesh and blood and bone.

Yesterday at an artists social gathering at the studios in Newcastle where I paint, at one point during the evening someone wondered aloud what would today’s art be like if modernism hadn’t happened and the old Renaissance rules still held. An interesting question but I think modernism and the break with how painters and sculptors imagined the world on their canvases and in bronze and marble, was inevitable, a consequence of changing social and economic conditions as that were being radically affected by industrial and political revolutions that were taking hold in the 18th century.

The collapse of old hierarchies of state and religion, the developing new social-political forces (bourgeois/proletarian), the development of cities and the impact of science, engineering and philosophy on our understanding and interpretation of the natural world; the collapsing of space and time by new technologies like railways and photography all combine to make the ‘isms’ of 20th century modernism simply unavoidable. The challenge we face now is still how to come to terms with and work through the freedoms modernism has given us and to make art that is of its time and relevant but not completely up its own arse…

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Laura Knight and modernism

On Friday I visited Laura Knight Portraits at the Laing, Newcastle. On Monday I watched Ulrich Seidl’s 2007 film, Import/Export. What’s the connection?

Laura Knight was either (depending on what you read as you moved around the exhibition) the first or second woman to become a member of the Royal Academy since the 18th Century. Confusing, but either way, it hardly matters, Knight stuck closely throughout her career to those academy principles of good drawing, careful and balanced composition, painting as an illusion of real space. Working in the wake of the most profound changes in art since the Renaissance, Knight’s paintings show few in any influences of European modernism beyond maybe a feathery impressionism in places and use of strong colour.

Contemporaries of Knight’s, such as Stanley Spencer or the Scottish painter, James Cowie, also produced work that like hers is largely traditional in conception and execution. Spencer’s often rather dull landscapes for instance.  However modernism is present in the work of both painters, whether in the gentle surrealism of Cowie’s Noon or Spencer’s stark and brutal portraits of himself and Patricia Preece, anticipating Lucian Freud’s naked portraits.

Of the paintings on show at the Laing, ‘Self Portrait aka The Model‘ painted in 1913 is the only one, with its areas of loose handling and broad flat planes of strong colour,  that nods to what is happening across the channel in France and Germany. This is the only painting in the show that, it seems to me, makes a break with the creation of three dimensional space within the canvas that virtually all painters, from the Renaissance up until the 19th Century took as a given.

In a series of lectures given in 1971 Michel Foucault credited Manet with making possible all painting that came after impressionism and he did this by abandoning the illusion of three dimensional space within the canvas. Instead, Foucault argued, Manet compressed the space in his paintings and in doing so invented the ‘picture-object’ which made quite plain the viewer, the materiality of the painting, its real existence as pigment on a flat two dimensional surface. Manet, Foucault said, ‘turned upside down… all that was fundamental in western painting since the quattrocento’.

Obviously, Laura Knight, who died in 1970, didn’t have the benefit of Foucault’s insights. However if the Manet’s break with tradition and all that followed had little impact on Knight another agent of modernism, did I think, the cinema. Looking at ‘Ruby Loftus screwing a breech ring‘ and ‘Take Off‘, both large oil paintings commissioned by the War Artist Advisory Committee, what I see is a film still. Each painting has the sense of movement, action and space that the cinema offers and I think clearly influenced Knight. Certainly early photographers and probably early film makers were influenced by old master and academy painting and composition so perhaps there a circuitousness in all this.

Watching Seidl’s Import/Export, the influence here is not the academy but modernism. Seidl’s camera is often static, the actors move back and forth, to and fro, in frame and out of frame, in front of a static blocks of muted colour and shape. The compression of space in paintings that began with Manet is transferred by Seidl to film so that although the film is about the very real struggles the two principle characters face, overcoming the poverty and lack of opportunity in the lives, the film has an aesthetic familiar from Russian Constructivism and later formalist abstract painting. In Seidl’s film it is both a real and an artificial Austria and Ukraine that the characters inhabit.

What’s the connection between Knight and Seidl? None really just a striking contrast (for me anyway) of how painters and film makers respond to influences, both contemporary and past in each of their crafts and how these influences are used in shaping what appears on canvas or on screen.

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15/02/2014 · 9:48 am

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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all back to Versailles

Listening to the radio this morning, there was a report about a potential rebellion by shareholders of Barclay’s Bank over levels of executive pay. I read on twitter that rating agency Standard and Poor plan to downgrade Spain’s credit rating thus making the country’s borrowing costs considerably higher. The papers are still full of speculation about the likelihood of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s cabinet career coming to a juddering halt follow the revelations about his and his special advisor’s conduct over News Corps attempt to take over BSkyB. And the media is equally packed with reports, comment and analysis of Rupert Murdoch’s evidence to the Levison enquiry in to press standards. Earlier in the week on Newsnight there was debate about the consequences of a socialist president being elected in France, the fall of the Dutch coalition government because its members couldn’t agree over planned austerity measures and a German government minister telling us there is no alternative to austerity. Here in the UK we are now officially in a double dip recession – the first since the 1970’s apparently – and the Tory/Lib Dem coalition’s austerity measures aren’t even fully implemented yet.

How should the arts respond to this? In particular, how do the visual arts respond? A common thread to all everything listed above is that the ordinary man, woman and child is taking the pain whilst a political and economic elite is doling it out and telling us there is no alternative. I’m reminded of a recent history of Versaille on BBC4. What I hadn’t appreciated before was how remote from society the French aristocracy became, even absenting themselves from the inconvenience of paying taxes it seems. Consider reports about how little tax the very wealthiest are paying now, and that was before George Osborne gave them a 5% tax cut, whilst raising taxes on the elderly, and I don’t think its too far fetched to suggest we’re moving backwards to a condition similar to that of 17th Century France.

For French artists at the time Poussin and Classicism appear to have been the dominant influences. You can interpret that as giving visual testimony to what was surely the aristocratic view of a society that was correctly ordered and balanced, in their favour of course.  Poussin’s use of classical and mythological themes would have lent further credence to the notion that this was the natural order of things, as intended by God himself. Modernism of course freed the artist of the shackles of having to satisfy the visual fantasies of the ruling class or indeed the middle class – although these were the people who would end up buying modern art. From the 19th century the artist increasingly became the outsider, his role as Gide wrote ‘to be at odds with his times’. But whilst its easy enough to find contemporary artists making art that is at odds with its time by being obscure or deliberately baffling, I’m not sure where the art is that is trying to respond to or take on the political and economic narratives we are currently facing. Indeed if you consider Damien Hirst’s retrospective at the Tate, here is someone who is, arguably, fully part of that financial elite and who is making art for them, in their own image. I once read an interview with Michael Craig Martin, one of Hirst’s tutors at Goldsmiths, who suggested that Hirst was playing a complicated game with money. Maybe so but it doesn’t appear to be one that challenges the use of money or the operations of the market. What is a diamond encrusted platinum skull but a fetish for the wealthy?

Obviously its difficult to produce art that takes on political themes without producing something trite or sentimental. Examples of successful political art aren’t that numerous. Guernica of course, Grosz, Dix, Heartfield too. John Berger and Peter Fuller both proposed that making art, if you are serious about it, is a political act in itself and a challenge to the dominant visual culture of the age, advertising. And I suppose that’s where I stand at the moment. But I’m not sure that’s going to worry executives at Barclay Bank.

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Art of America 2

I watched the third and final part of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Art of America. As with the earlier episodes it was a well made and interesting account of the state of recent (approx pop art to present day) art in America and how it has got to where it is now. According to Graham-Dixon American art has, post 9/11, entered a new age of anxiety as American’s become less sure of their place in the world. I think this is probably a fair assessment and echoes the direction European art took after the second world war; think of Francis Bacon, Debuffet, Giacommetti. The young artist that Graham-Dixon met, as an example of this new tendency, created (or rather it seemed his assistants did) wooden reliefs that looked like town planners or architects models, which he then set fire to. The blackened and charred results looked effective but the artist himself seemed to struggle a little to articulate exactly what he was up to. Mind, so did Warhol and Graham-Dixon thought he was the most significant American of the late 20th Century, so maybe that doesn’t matter.
The final programme didn’t pick up on the theme of American art being used as propaganda against the ‘Soviet menace’ (see previous post) but perhaps the most frustrating thing about it was the way it skimmed through the years, touching on this, highlighting that, when it would have been more interesting to stop and consider in more depth a particular artist or group of artists. For example Graham-Dixon suggested that the minimalists such as Judd and Flavin, were reflecting in their work the empty consumerism of American culture. I’ve never been very interested in the minimalists and this is something that had never really occurred to me. I always took the line that they were following late modernist dogma of reducing art to its simplest, most basic form. I would have like to have heard more, for Graham-Dixon to have developed his proposition (it might not be original but I don’t know) but before you knew it we were whisked off to the next significant movement. Ah well

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