Saturday, 9 May 2015

Marlene Dumas – the image as challenge


Great Britain
If ‘better late than never’ was the case with my recent visit to the Goya exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, then it was ever more true with a Friday evening trip to see an exhibition at the Tate Modern.

Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, has been on since February and finishes tomorrow.

I had half thought of visiting, but the first few months of the year have been manic, for various reasons. And I admit that, against that background, a combination of not being familiar with the artist and feeling slightly put off by the publicity image used, I hadn’t got past that half thought.

Rejects
Fortunately, when visiting the Tate Modern last week to see the Sonia Delaunay retrospective, I’d picked up enough visual information to decide that I needed to see the exhibition.

And so it was that, after work on Friday, The Other Half and I headed back to the South Bank, for what was probably my first major exhibition by a living artist.

Dumas was born in born in 1953 in Cape Town, South Africa, leaving the country for Amsterdam in 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising.

Amy Blue
Here, the Tate has gathered together a body of work that encompasses her career to date – a career that clearly illustrates the influence of that background.

Dumas doesn’t paint from life, but from photographs: some she takes herself, others that she sources from various media.

These are far from being copies, however, but merely a starting point. And where the images remain figurative and, in cases of famous people, entirely recognisable, Dumas imbues them with a power and haunting quality that raises many questions – not least, how we look at our fellow human beings.

We begin with Rejects, a series of ink and graphite ‘portrait heads’, which includes the image used for the exhibition publicity material and which, within this wider context, makes sense.

These are not ‘rejected’ people, but primarily created from works that were initially rejected or incomplete, and the set was inspired by her home country’s ‘reject stores’ where you can by clothes with faults.

The Teacher
Once you know that, you start to understand what she’s exploring. Because exploration is what it is – there is nothing polemical about Dumas’s work: it is a starting point for contemplation or discussion.

One of the most perfect examples of this is in the two canvases that form Great Britain (1995-97). One is taken from a fashion shoot with Naomi Campbell and the second, from a royal portrait of Princess Diana.

Seen as a single piece – not initially the artist’s intention – they create a serious dialogue about ideas and representations of femininity and female sexuality. And because neither of them shows a representation of women that is highly sexualised, it makes that dialogue all the more interesting.

The Widow
In The Painter (1994) we are presented with a picture of the artist’s young daughter, hands covered in bright paint, a petulant stare challenging the viewer.

Part of what struck me about this was the simplicity of the grey sweep of paint that creates the child’s lower face, giving it that petulant expression. Indeed, it brought to mind the simplicity of Goya’s washes in the pictures I’d seen just a few short weeks ago.

Early this century, Dumas turned to more obviously political subjects. Two versions of a painting, The Woman of Algiers (2001) and The Trophy (2013) show a young woman being held, naked, for cameras.

Against the Wall
The Widow (2013) shows Pauline Lumumba walking bare-breasted through Kinshasa in 1961, in an act of mourning after the murder of her husband, Patrice, the first democractically-elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Against the Wall (2010) shows Jewish men waiting to go to prayer, standing alongside the Israeli security barrier – a visual reminder of the Wailing Wall.

The same room houses another large painting, The Mother (2009) – this time showing an anonymous woman in black, kneeling before an empty grave, with a framed picture of a young man near her. She is surrounded by more empty graves.

The Mother
She takes a classical theme of art in Forsaken, with a crucifixion, which has the Christ on the cross utterly alone, and is hung here in the same room as Great Men, a series of delicate portraits of notable gat men from both 19th and 20th centuries, which was created in response to attitudes towards homosexuality in Russia, and was first exhibited there in 2014.

One room contains a number of works that explored the dynamic of the naked figure (male and female) in art, pin-ups and pornography.

Again, this challenges the viewer to consider precisely how they view.

For me, The Teacher (Sub A) (1987) strikes a note of great familiarity, showing as it does a conventional school photograph (how I remember them!), while her portrait of Amy Winehouse, Amy – Blue (2011) is another striking work.

Her palette is muted, her sense of scale vast. But Dumas illustrates the power of the figurative in a world that sometimes seems to have forgotten it.

She paints terrorists and suspect, victims and more, constantly challenging us to consider our relationships with those pictures. Her work is full of questions about life, death, sexuality and power.

And one of Dumass greatest strengths is that she so carefully avoids the polemical; she doesn’t patronise the viewer, but instead invites you to consider.


Better late than never, as I said. This was a challenging exhibition that has left me with much to mull over. I’m very glad I made it.


Thursday, 7 May 2015

Raging against the machines

Maria Callas as Madama Butterfly
For all that technology can bring us some really wonderful things, and enable us to do so many things we couldn’t do previously, it can also be tremendously frustrating.


And since penning a frustrated piece about iTunes almost two years ago, things have not actually become much easier.

To begin with, it was disappointing to learn, earlier this year, that Apple has discontinued the classic iPod, which could carry a vast amount of music around – perfect if your collection (which is still growing) includes full operas.

Discovering this, I decided to get one of the most recent iPods, with the largest amount of memory possible, and mothball my old classic for a while, since they’re now selling for a lot of money.

While the new one is smaller and less weighty, it also has nowhere near the memory of its predecessor.

This is partly to do with the cloud. The trouble is, I don’t like the cloud. I don’t buy digital music these days for a reason: it’s my collection, which I have paid for, and I do not want the risk of any hacker or even a company deciding, via technology, that they can control my music (or any other data – and we know what’s happened to some very personal photographs out there).

I do not wish to have to ‘stream’ my music when I want to listen to it.

If people do, then fair enough. But I do not – and I should be able to have that option. I should have the option of not having my device (in this case, my new iPod) showing every piece of music that I have purchased digitally in the past – and then insisting that, if I want to listen to them, I stream them, even though I downloaded copies originally and, in an odd case, have backed them up on disc.

So they exist, in effect, in my computer, but I can no longer decided whether or not they appear on my iPod and, if they do, it seems that they are not the copy I downloaded, but one that I can stream, because the iCloud says: ‘Oh look – you downloaded this freebie six years ago, so that means you want access to it at all times, even if you have not checked it when trying to organise your portable music. In which case, I, the all-seeing, all-knowing iCloud, will put a picture of the relevant cover art onto your iPod for you, so that you can stream it whenever you wish’.

Except, of course, I don’t wish. It clutters up what I want.

And what I want to carry with me to listen to is currently undergoing an extremely rewarding expansion phase.

Opera has been a very gradual learning curve for me. Even after visiting the English National Opera a few times, the damn has only been truly broken this year with our going to the Royal Opera House.

While the ultimate operatic experience is always going to be seeing a production live, listening is a wonderful way of learning.

And with such a wealth of historic recordings to choose from, you can listen to more than one and, therefore, learn to compare productions, the speed of playing a score, which parts of the orchestra are emphasised and which are the truly great voices.

Herbert von Karajan
When you can get hold of a copy of, say, Madama Butterfly, with Maria Callas and Herbert von Karajan, for just £3.97, then this isn’t an expensive exercise either. You wouldn’t get a pint of beer in London for that these days.

Actually, I’ve had a marked reluctance to do the comparison thing: I try to look at authoritative sources such as Gramophone to discover what is the ‘best’ recording ever – hence my having invested in Solti’s Ring over von Karajan’s – but that doesn’t necessarily teach you much when you don’t compare it to anything else.

It’s a slightly odd approach, since I have several cases of musicals where I have more than one recording – and also of orchestral music: there is more than one Rites of Spring on the shelf and more than a single copy of Mozart’s Requiem, while I did a little experiment a year or so ago, using digital downloads of the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony by various conductors in an attempt to compare – and it is amazing what differences there can be.

But I shall strive to overcome this reluctance.

Television can also offer some opportunities to explore more.

Just recently, for instance, The Other Half spotted that Sky Arts 2 was screening the Royal Opera House’s 2013 production of Puccini’s Turandot.

I was utterly absorbed for the duration: Lise Lindstrom is wonderful as the eponymous ice queen and young singer Eri Nakamura excels as the tragic Luì.

Marco Berti in Turandot
Marco Berti is a bit sort of … well, wooden …  as Calaf, but comes good in the end when he gets to sing that iconic aria, Nessun Dorma. And then there’s Andrei Serban’s staging – a visual treat. The plot may be flimsy, but the music is more than adequate compensation.

It’s worth pointing this out, because this film is available on disc and is also bound to crop up on TV again at some future date.

Enamoured with the music, I decided to get a copy (and upload it onto my iPod). It was easy to find a recording to pick: Zubin Mehta conducting Joan Sutherland. Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé and Peter Pears (along with other names I am not familiar with).

And it is sumptuous to listen to.

We’re on a roll with Puccini: I’ve managed to get tickets for a run of La bohème at the Royal Opera House in July. It’s the final night, with Plácido Domingo guest conducting, which itself is a thrilling thought – I have vinyl recordings of Domingo from several decades ago: my love of music is far from new; just the broadening of my experience and horizons.

And here’s a thing: the ROH website is brilliant for booking, as it has a picture for each seat and for the view from that seat.

I had long fallen into the trap of assuming that the ROH is always very expensive, but have been thankfully disabused of that – together with a fear that it might feel rather intimidating.

Our seats for July rolled in at £40 each, which is cheaper than most of the theatre tickets we’ve had in recent years and easily comparable to sporting events these days. And the view look excellent.

In the meantime, I have a Pavarotti recording to prepare myself for that night – so I’ll know the story better and won’t find myself concentrating too much on the surtitles.

The only problem I can see is running out of space on the iPod and then having to fart around within the classical genre rather than simply uploading all my classical music.

Bloody machines.

Id have to resort to reading while commuting – mind, Michael Tanners Wagner, which challenges a number of attitudes toward that musical giant (including some utter daftness from people who should know much better), has been a fascinating and highly informative read.

Old and new – there are plenty of options in this musical voyage of discovery.





Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Goya's visions from a troubled mind

Mirth
Reading about art over the last couple of years, one thing that I’ve come to realise is that defining anything in the art world is rarely as easy as might first appear – and not least when you take into account tension between the academic world and the non-academic one.

That’s particularly the case in terms of ‘modern art’.

The question has long been asked as to what modern art is – or more to the point, when it started – and there are probably as many different answers as people who’ve asked it.

And since relativism is not the aim here, its important to note that some are simply based on unthinking and uneducated stupidity.

Only a week or so ago, I came across a response to a national newspaper art review where someone had dammed all ‘modern art’.

I admit to having posted a sarcastic riposte that, since many regard Manet as the father of modern art, the poster making the comment presumably considered Impressionism as a whole to be a load of old cobblers.

Just can't go on at the age of 98
Of course, what many people mean by ‘modern art’ is actually contemporary art – and even more specifically than that, non-figurative art and conceptual art.

But going back to the more academic approach – that the father of the modern was Manet (1832-1883) – that doesn’t mean that what he did came out of a vacuum.

We can see the roots of modern art in the likes of Turner (1775-1851); in the works of the much earlier El Greco (1541-1614) and in those of Goya.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was a Spanish romantic painter and printmaker, regarded as being both the last of the Old Masters and the first modern one.

While paintings such as The Third of May 1808 (1814) have become iconic, he’s not an artist that has made any great impression on me personally – to be frank, I cannot really recall seeing any of his works in life, although it’s probable that I have, since I’ve visited the National Gallery more than once.

Mother Celestina
But the Courtauld Gallery in London has recently been hosting an exhibition of some of his late work, which I’d noted in the autumn and fully intended to see.

It’s been the nature of the last few months that I had all but forgotten what was on in any of London’s galleries this spring. In the case of this Goya exhibition, it was only by chance – walking past Somerset House a couple of weeks ago – that I remembered and dashed in to ensure I caught it.

This is the first time that all the surviving drawings from the Witches and Old Women Album together since they were broken up after the artists death.

In 1799, Goya had published a series of 80 prints, titled Caprichios, illustrating what he described as the “innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilised society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual”.

One of a number of albums drawn in the last decade of his life, the pieces in Witches and Old Women Album – produced around 1819-23 – were, unlike the Caprichios, never meant for public consumption.

Working essentially for himself, Goya gave free rein to his creativity, inventing images that range from the humorous to the downright macabre.

I can hear snoring
These remarkable drawings act as a commentary on human hopes, fears and delusions – not least, the fear of aging and mortality.

There’s a dark bite to some of his visions. One drawing satirises an elderly woman deluding herself that shes still likely to meet and marry a dapper young man, while others portray witches carrying off or even preparing to eat babies.

Whatever the exhibition title suggests, though, the targets of these pieces were not limited to members of the fairer sex: there are plenty of men represented here too – including a number of clerical figures, and religion is certainly one of the themes that can be seen here.

The pictures are merciless and manic – yet among the darkness there are also scenes of joyfulness.

But whatever the subject matter, the drawings are deceptively simple, possessing great sophistication. And his use of washes is an education to behold.

Dream of a good witch

The exhibition as a whole includes other works by Goya that help to provide further context, but the core exhibit includes, as an example, the following: Just can’t go on at the age of 98 features an elderly man with two sticks.

It’s a sublime piece of work: just look at how few marks there are to convey so completely the subject.

Mother Celestina – a name that recurs – adds complexity, since Celestina is a Spanish name associated with a procuress/bawd, thus being one of the ways that Goya brought sex into the equation. In the picture I’ve used here, the character sits, waiting, grasping something – a pouch of money, perhaps?

The ironically-titled Dream of a good witch shows a hag bearing a bundle of babies.

I can hear snoring has an elderly man waking at the sound of his own snoring. Who hasn’t experienced that?

Mirth, on the other hand, portrays an elderly couple appearing to dance in a space. It’s a joyous image.

While She won’t get up till she’s finished her prayers presents us with an old woman praying with her rosary – and just look at the use of light and shade here.

She won't get up till she's finished her prayers
Goya was ill during the final years of his life. Some have suggested the cause was cumulative and severe lead poisoning, given the amount of lead white paint he used in his work, while other analyses since his death have pointed toward paranoid dementia.

Against such a background, it hardly seems farfetched to suggest that these works are not simply satires in the conventional sense, but also shine some light into the dark and troubled corners of the artist’s own mind.

In looking at pictures like these; in exploring darker aspects of human experience; in seeing the violence and the brutishness that some of them show, there is something that we can perhaps see as a harbinger of the modern world and art’s response to it.

That, though, plays to a view that the past was rosier than it was in reality.

But however you interpret the pictures, this is a fascinating exhibition that’s well worth catching if you have the chance in the next couple of weeks – and one where buying the catalogue genuinely pays dividends, because you really will want to look back at the pictures.

And the Courtauld should be applauded for bringing together the long-scattered pages of this album.