It seems that the concept of a finite war has collapsed in the face of long-term conflicts without geographical limits. In the same way, reporting has changed and as smartphones have emerged as a reporting device, perhaps art seems out of place in a war zone. Static, micro-level portraits will not headline the ten o’clock news or sprint through Twitter. The ease of taking grainy last-minute iPhone footage befits the chronicling of ceaseless long-term struggles, it seems. But a portrait can just as easily convey the enormity of a conflict as a graphic battle scene. And as today’s battle scenes have chenged, becoming shattered generations rather than muddy, shelled fields – portraiture reflects some of the deeper consequences of war, reverberating across countries and time.
And so, artists are creating collaborative projects to thread communities out of those displaced by war. On 1st February 2014, in central Kiev, anti-government protestors were barricaded in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, living under a lethal siege. Armour was improvised in a setting of ice, fire, smoke and soot. Anastasia Taylor-Lind, a photojournalist from London, set up a makeshift portrait studio by the barricades. The result of her work is immensely powerful. Against a blank black curtain, ordinary men and women confront the viewer, vulnerable in their homemade protective clothing. As time progressed during this project, the artist’s subjects morphed from revolutionaries brandishing weapons, to women cradling flowers for the dead.
When conflicts feel like relics of history, or too distant to be relevant, photojournalism throws forward untold stories that demand attention. Photojournalist Michael Kamber published photos from three of the Iraq war’s most prominent photographers. Frustrated at America’s desire to tune out of the war, and the US military’s encouragement of indifference by taking an active role in censoring what could be photographed, the cautiously obscure portraits – some shocking and gruesome – convey an unavoidable sense of perpetual sadness.
The mass of social media flowing from every war zone makes it almost impossible to separate out nuanced understanding from the fake or unrevealing. Portraits from warzones offer a considered insight into the effects of war and social displacement around the world. Kamber’s portraits show wounds scarring both Iraqi and US communities, as soldiers bring home injury, grief and disillusionment with their sovereign state’s confused world identity. Syrian artist Tammam Azzam’s version of Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’, superimposed on a hauntingly empty, bullet-ridden building in Damascus, is a passionate plea for empathy and kindness amidst cold brutality. Here, the golden ghost of Klimt’s tender portrait mourns the splendour and love the city once offered.
As conflict after conflict is buried under an avalanche of new crises, it is too easy to forget one for another. The interchangeablity of hashtags perhaps references this better than anything: #Ukraine, #Syria, #Iraq and #IslamistState. Photojournalism moves with a society undergoing struggles, capturing the suffering that will remain with people for generations. Most importantly, portraits encourage us to consider the status of the subject in a world perplexed by the boundaries of nation, class, race and religion.
With thanks to Anastasia Taylor-Lind, Michael Kamber and Tammam Azzam for photographs.
China’s art is exciting – it really is. Extremely simplistically, the PRC’s art history can be divided by pre- and post-Mao’s rule. What little art there was in between was either so corrupted it is purely propaganda, or was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. This makes modern Chinese art one of the few windows into their confusing, contradictory and colourful political system.
Graffiti in the 798 Art District, Beijing
Modern art in China comprises expressions formed by political, economic and cultural combustion. In the 798 Art District in Beijing, and M50 in Shanghai, China’s revived interest in nudging at societal boundaries have bred edgy art scenes. With many relics decimated during the Cultural Revolution, the low rent and spacious rooms in the disused factories of mutating cities gave artists a unique and low-cost way of creating a Chinese artistic history.
Closeted amongst decommissioned military factories built by the East Germans during the Maoist heyday of the 1950s, the 798 Art District in Beijing is a thriving microcosm of artists’ studios, boutiques and independent cafés. ‘Saw-tooth’ roof design, high ceilings, north-facing windows and right-angles give each building a distinctly utilitarian feel. Communist slogans paint the walls in fading red letters. Quietly riveting exhibitions confront depictions of the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and China’s “great leader”, with established or fresh mainland artists pushing forth ardent political messages from minimalist gallery walls.
Once the Chunming Slub Mill, and now the nerve centre of Shanghai’s art scene, M50 is a similar complex, with galleries and noodle bars stuffed into every crevice of a disused cotton factory. Satirical undertones pervade the air: the Maoist personality cult haunts modern China, which now paints Little-Red-Book-waving PLA soldiers with dummies in their mouths.
But no matter how exciting the art may be – no matter how many times it embellishes China’s rigid daily politics with under-the-surface views – it is neither Communism nor political repression that mars the 798 Art District or M50. Neither escapes the rampant, almost religious commercialism that paints nearly every street in the Chinese metropolises. Wandering the manicured boulevards, you enter a bubble of Sino-Europe. At Café – a wild café with bombed-out brick walls in Beijing – serves spaghetti bolognese and tuna niçoise. Illy Coffee signs jump out between every gallery, offering respite to tourists, and a chance to imitate the West. Previously an oasis of individualism, born by the low-cost nature of the shabby setting, both complexes have become playgrounds for people who want street-stall souvenirs to be sold in Scandinavian-style shops.
Perhaps this is utterly inevitable as China strides confidently forward into the world economy, squeezing every drip of GDP it can from its culture. But in doing so, the subtle political dissent the galleries quietly put forward is overrun by capitalisation of what attracts tourists to the art districts – shopping for mass produced Communist memorabilia and homesickness for good coffee.
The 798 Art District and M50 are triple-tiered exhibition fields. On one level, China’s socio-industrial history creates a backdrop to modern Chinese art where the forgone creativity of the late 19th century should have been. On the second level, the cultural aspirations of modern China offer timid satire of China’s political system. In reality, however, a third level of crazed commercialism drips over both, clouding what modern Chinese art is really for.
Abroad, Chinese government officials often justify their regime by putting the economic enfranchisement of millions on a pedestal. If everyone’s getting rich, who needs more than one political party? It is certainly ironic, but possibly even intentional, that the Chinese commercialism post-Mao Zedong has almost become a new form of political repression.
Stretched along the Thames, Cookham is a town better known for boating and riverside walks than iconic British art. Visitors are more likely to be heading to a local pub, than a gallery for renowned artist Stanley Spencer. But this little-known gem is a poignant and fascinating tribute to the artist.
What makes the gallery so personal is its sole dedication to Spencer and proximity to his life. The gallery opened in 1962, three years after Spencer’s death. He was born in Cookham, and died in Cliveden – the neighbouring village.
Spencer drew heavily on his surroundings. Much of his work depicts biblical scenes happening not in the Holy Land, but this small Thames-side village. From Christ’s miracles to the Crucifixion, all is relocated to leafy Berkshire. He referred to Cookham as ‘a village in heaven’: his choice of setting gives the visitor an eerie immediacy to Christianity’s stories. The gallery even offers a walk through the areas which inspired the paintings: you can visit the church depicted in Spencer’s work ‘The Resurrection’.
From 1908 to 1912, Spencer studied at the Slade in London. He was so attached to his birthplace that he would often take the train back home in time for tea – his fellow student C.R.W. Nevinson nicknamed him Cookham.
With the arrival of the First World War, Spencer volunteered to serve with the Royal Army Medical Corps. His survival affected Spencer’s attitude to mortality irrevocably. Upon his return to Cookham, he had lost that ‘early morning feeling’ which had so awakened his spirit. But the war provided fresh, if bloody, inspiration. He was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee to paint from his experiences and his works in this genre included ‘Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916’ (now at the Imperial War Museum), and murals for the Sandham Memorial Chapel. The altarpiece here depicts ‘Resurrection of the Soldiers’. On the eve of the centenary, Somerset House began an exhibition of his work, aptly titled ‘Heaven in the Hell of War’.
Spencer’s work has a soothing storybook nature. Its form is clear – lines firmly separating shapes into recognisable bodies. His style has a calmness about it, and incorporates mainly soft, natural colours. This lends it a sense of finality and completeness; the events he depicts are untouchable. His biblical imagery thus seems more spiritual and legendary than physically realistic. The paintings are detached from the viewer’s reality – comfortingly similar but still a mythical portrayal of religious or military events.
To me, Spencer’s conjoining of Christian miracles with local areas showed a belief in people’s inherent morality. It insinuates people – not the divine – are the foundation of religion. He depicts soldiers being resurrected, and painted a military hospital scene inside a chapel. Just as Christ and Christianity have been preserved through art, so Spencer made immortal the sacrifice of the First World War through his paintings.
Spencer’s work is easily accessible elsewhere: from the Tate Britain to Royal Academy, Cambridge Fitzwilliam and Imperial War Museum. But there is something significantly different about experiencing his art so close to where he lived for most of his life. The meaning of his work is pervaded by the context in which he created it: spiritually, physically and mentally. Both the Stanley Spencer Gallery and the village of Cookham provide a profound sense of the artist and his heritage.
Today we have become so used to the unadulterated mocking of politicians, that direct insults and impersonations are unabashed and abundant. What we find less and less is fantastical caricature and unreal analogy. Daumier’s notorious political satire – currently on display at the Royal Academy – offers a soaring vision of the origins of satirical portraiture, through his uncompromising caricatures of the political elite and bourgeoisie.
Daumier chronicled every day life in nineteenth century Paris with shameless precision – pushing every grimy detail into the spectator’s view. The stars of his portraits come from the margins of society: laundresses, street entertainers, farm workers. He reduced Paris from its dreamy, stony architectural grandeur to its viscous, sordid streets. Working from memory, his figures are harrowingly blurred and distorted – with warm pastels overrun with ribbon-like outlines.
An unexpected idiosyncrasy is Daumier’s brilliant skill in portraying contemplation, and isolation. Amidst the bustle of city scenes there are voids – blank windows, shadows or walls – which bring out the paradoxical solitariness of city life. Lone figures are common: at the end of the exhibition, there is a peaceful portrayal of artistic beginnings, with light streaming through a window onto a canvas to suggest creative potential (‘The Artist Facing his Work’, 1860-63).
The political elite, by contrast, were satirised in a fantastical, grotesque world; mimicking their own misunderstanding of the reality they presided over. Daumier’s process began with cartoonish sculptures in seedy tertiary colours, from which is modelled his distorted figurines. He aimed for high-profile targets; his lithographs moving with all the violence and changeable nature of politics at the time. Monarchy is detailed as a corpse in a coffin, with the sarcastic caption ‘Meanwhile, they keep insisting she has never been better.’ (1872). By the 1870s his satire was intense, powerful and prescient: censorship laws had by now relaxed with the fall of authoritarian rule.
Faces are gaunt – with pale pink flesh cut under black bone structures. Appalling realities such as cholera epidemics are analogized to fairytale figures. Raw violence is shown in gaunt form. ‘Madame is moving, transferring from the cemeteries. Hurray! The dead are going fast!’ (1867) is an instance of the recurring theme of mortality towards the end of Daumier’s life. Rejected by the censor three times, it is Tim-Burton-esque, correlating the death (the Grim Reaper) with industry (a steam engine) and military armament.
Daumier separates these two sides of Paris – the laughable and the horribly real – but meshes the mediums and styles in ‘Ecce Homo’ (1849-1852). Daumier was opposed to religion, and though this scene is biblical, it is more a general depiction of protest than an outright illustration of the moment Jesus is condemned to crucifixion. It offers a traditional way of demonstrating the easy manipulation of crowds. Though unfinished, its size is exceptional, its movement animated but skeletal.
The editor Pierre Véron commented ‘I could never understand how Daumier, so assertive, so revolutionary when holding a pencil could be so shy in everyday life.’ Perhaps he made up for a reclusive personality with an inimitable intensity in his art and its message. He refused to pursue more lucrative mediums such as portraiture, landscape and book illustration, but the truth and skill in his work inspired artists from Picasso to Francis Bacon and Quentin Blake. Daumier thrived on his political indignation. His visions of Paris are – whether fantastical or deleteriously real – as truthful and moving a portrait of an era as can be found.
‘Daumier: Visions of Paris, 1808-1879’ is on at the Royal Academy until 26th January 2014. For more details, visit http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/daumier/.
An Evening Standard Freedom of Information request has revealed that £250,000 has been spent on portraits of parliamentarians since 1995. It is certainly a strong and provocative headline, but perhaps a little misleading in its attack on ‘expensive vanity portraits’. £250,000 sounds like a lot of taxpayer money, and certainly some of the more bombastic headlines have screamed that “YOU” have paid a quarter of a million pounds for paintings of people you probably don’t like. Of course, spread £250,000 over 19 years and it begins to look more reasonable. Divide that sum up by Britain’s approximately 30 million taxpayers and it becomes nearly insignificant. It may not make a very good headline, but the portraits have actually cost “YOU” a grand total of £0.0004 a year. At that rate, it won’t be until 2020 that you’ve paid a single penny.
If we remove the issue of the cost from the equation, we are left with the more interesting questions behind this story – why get these portraits done at all? And what do they tell us about the subjects?
Portraiture is an artistic genre that carries with it a set of potent associations. The history of portrait painting is one filled with depictions of great leaders who have left their mark on the world. Commissioned portraits (rather than those of an artist’s model) throughout history have captured kings and popes, military generals and secular leaders who shaped the landscape of their time. In return, through patronage, they allowed our greatest artists to practice their craft and produce their masterpieces. This relationship, in which great artists produce great paintings of great men, has led the statesman’s portrait to assume a status higher than may be immediately apparent. It is not just a painting that you receive when you sit; it is a position in a long and distinguished tradition.
With this in mind, the reason for the parliamentary portraits seems a little clearer. Politicians have rarely been reluctant to attempt to place themselves within a tradition of great rulers, after all. Consider also the fact that British politicians are often mocked and seldom liked. The vast majority of the time they see themselves artistically depicted is in satirical newspaper cartoons. The opportunity to sit for a flattering portrait after a long career of being drawn as a spineless weasel or horned demon is understandably attractive.
When you get past the outrage of their being commissioned, the portraits speak volumes about the subjects, and the manner in which they wish to be seen. The bronze statue of Margaret Thatcher that stands in the Members Lobby of the House of Commons depicts her apparently in mid-speech. The dynamism of the pose is in-keeping with the more positive aspects of her image, and she is shown with a pointing finger, extended as if to lead her MPs forward, even now. Diane Abbott is depicted head on, in close-up and seemingly nude – an uncompromising and open position from the left-wing backbencher. The implication is that she lays her principles bare and refuses to retreat from them – an interpretation supported by her history of rebelling against her own government on defence policy and tuition fees.
Thatcher and Abbott’s portraits try to accentuate certain qualities that they are known for, but in others, the opposite is the case. Michael Howard’s in particular seems to be an attempt at correcting the way in which he is usually seen. Howard, the former leader of the Conservative Party, has often been regarded as sinister and unsettling. Fellow Tory Ann Widdecome famously remarked there was ‘something of the night about him’. Perhaps with this in mind, his portrait features him smiling sweetly, casting a soft look out from the canvas.
The point of their career in which the subjects sat is also reflected in the paintings. Compare the portraits of Iain Duncan Smith and Tony Blair below. Iain Duncan Smith was painted in 2004, the year after he was replaced as leader of the Conservative Party after losing a vote of no confidence. He is shown bullish and defiant, with hands on hips as if to project resilience at a time that he was being labelled a spent force. Tony Blair, by contrast, is shown looking vulnerable and tired. The 2008 painting captures him having just stepped down from a premiership tainted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The portrait shows a statesman who was presented with tough decisions and feels keenly the pain and suffering of those affected by them. Incidentally, this is the view of himself that he attempted to put forward in his memoir two years later.
Unpacked then, the story takes on a different feel. This is not a scandal like that over MPs’ expenses (the cost in fact is just half of what Sinn Fein MPs claimed while refusing to turn up to Westminster), but something quite different. For £0.0004 a year, the taxpayer has purchased a better understanding of some of the most prominent figures of contemporary British politics. The result, far from being the ‘vanity portraits’ of the screaming headlines, is actually quite sad – a series of anxious eyes towards future history, pleading that they will not be remembered as an irrelevance or a joke, a sinister figure or a callous warmonger, but as something more. How successful they will be in this, of course, only time will tell.
That Nelson Mandela’s influence is so pervasive is evident not just in the way he changed South Africa. Beyond that isolated period of history, it spreads from Hollywood, through galleries and music, to the streets of Johannesburg. From Clint Eastwood’s soaring film ‘Invictus’ to the eminence Mandela gave Henley’s poem by reciting its mantra of self-mastery to fellow prisoners on Robben Island, the strength of his values have gained extensive prominence in the creative arts.
His death is quite obviously a painful loss. The world has lost a statesman valued internationally for his humility and inescapable relevance to justice and freedom, and South Africa has lost its most beloved son. But the blow of his absence is softened by the fact that he was already an icon. The morals he represented transformed him into a symbol of kindness, modesty, forgiveness and reconciliation. The views he propagated have an unbeatable international following that will inevitably continue. Refusing to be classed by any label thrown upon him – be it as a criminal, judged by race or nationality – he became a universal icon in every sense of the phrase.
Street art blends Mandela into the very construction and bustling, heaving life of South Africa; it shows the history of the country not through architecture, but through urban mural. His image spreads from the streets of South Africa to squares on London; outside Parliament he serves as a constant reminder to the inevitability of defeat unjust government must face.
At a time when the ANC and Mandela were taboo in South African media, songs inspired by South African music spread worldwide. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ remains the epitome of exploitation of popular music for powerful political purposes. The very act of singing when mere mention of his name was banned, was itself a peaceful, delighted expression of opposition to persecution and solidarity with divided South Africans.
Photographs of him capture the reality of his fight and act as proof of his message. In the National Portrait Gallery, photographs of a young man reasoning and challenging can be found from 1962; of an elderly statesman ever-conscious and proactive from 1997.
Mandela has been, and remains, an intense creative symbol because the life he lived was so vibrant, poignant and real. Almost uniquely, the fact that this symbolism is backed up by reality strengthens the message in a way no myth or legend could, and thus ensures its enduring popularity among the creative. Mandela symbolised freedom and equality – but proved their worth by living his life for them, rather than asserting their value by analogy.
With thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, Wikipedia and ADN for pictures.
For 8 weeks of my gap year I will be surrounded by artistic excellence on a daily basis. Six of these will be on AHA, but the other two, were at the Houses of Parliament. Entering through what became one of my favourite chambers, the Lords’ cloakroom, which feels like a Quidditch locker room with low-arched stone ceilings and iron pegs, the tone is immediately set. This place is as palatial as the name suggests. If this is the cloakroom the rest has much to live up to. I am familiar with the Palace of Westminster from school trips, but even seasoned political veterans tell me that the excitement never spoils. The porters and librarians told me that they still expected books to float from shelves by magic, and that the very coat racks make their responsibilities feel like privileges. The same rubs off on the Lords by all accounts, who are not paid for their work, but willingly attend even when they are wheelchair-bound, so deep is their determination to do well by their titles. (This is by no means all of them, but the members who were present seemed very different the often-publicised carelessness and backwardness of the caricatures of the place.)
On my first day I was swept into the House of Lords while still in session, and on the second, Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons. Seeing both Houses in use is the best way to understand their roles in UK politics. The Commons seems like a school hall, with booing and jeering on both sides, and folders of notes littering the space. The warmer, grander shapes and colours of the Lords Chamber inspire a more solemn atmosphere. This chamber survived the war in its original form, unlike the Commons, and the sanctity of age remains, helped by the undeniably lavish thrones that stand at one end, creating a shimmering and stately presence, a reminder of royal power.
A visiting colleague of my boss whispered to me in the House of Lords “I don’t think they had the word tacky in the 1850s”. Her observation, I felt, while gazing at the throne built for Queen Victoria, was apt, but the decadence of the Neo-Gothic Palace is not tasteless, but purposeful. It is home to tradition and innovation, to bureaucracy and efficiency, in surroundings that are not as austere as they seem. The rich red of the chamber and the gilt decoration gives an atmosphere that inspires respect without self-importance and a formal touch that was absent in the Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions.
As for the rest of the Palace, the room that made its mark on me the most was the Prince’s Chamber. While the marble, life size statue of Victoria on one side makes you want to bow or curtsey, the wives of Henry VIII that adorn the upper walls seem conspiratorial and inviting, seen together like a team, ready to wink down at willing assistants to their mission to help women have a hand in the political game. Smiling at Anne Boleyn daily certainly made me feel a little less intimidated.
Across Bridge Street from the Palace (or through a tunnel under the road) stands a totally different structure, and one little accredited for the work of Parliament. Portcullis House, home to much of BBC’s The Thick of It, is just as beautiful, just as official as its Victorian neighbour, but this 1990s structure, full of glass and metal beams and indoor trees, feels very much like the catalyst or the oil for the creaky cogs that make up politics next door. The buildings mimic one another in their Gothic-derived styles, and this represents their functions perfectly, one built as a re-imagining of a centuries-old style to house a centuries-old institution, the other to re-imagine the same again, both adding modernity and relevance to tradition.
If I learnt anything in my fortnight at Westminster, it was that the Palace does not mean luxury, but a beautiful place that rewards the eye in return for good work and solid government. As we find out all too often, this is not always the case, and so this monumental building is a beacon of optimism as well as a Palace of politics.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller argued in April 2013 that the arts had to make a case for their economic worth to receive government funding. Speaking at the British Museum, she said British culture should be viewed as a ‘commodity’ and ‘compelling product’ to sell at home and export abroad.
Investment in art, she went on, is only a means to ‘healthy dividends’. When British art is exported, it should be part of ‘relationship marketing’ to help ‘attract investment which will drive jobs and opportunities here at home’.
But at the heart of Miller’s speech was contradiction.
The arts can only grow and benefit Britain’s economy with significant government funding. Asking them to increase profit whilst reducing funding is paradoxical. The most successful theatrical exports of recent years – War Horse, One Man Two Guvnors (seven-times Tony-nominated and currently touring Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia), and Matilda – came from the subsidised sector. Sir Nicholas Hytner, head of the National Theatre, said ‘she seems to be acknowledging that the arts are an engine for growth, but growth is what we are desperately in need of.’
Besides, Britain’s culture is already fantastic value for money. London theatre alone returns almost as much to the treasury in VAT as Arts Council England gives to theatre across the country. If we consistently reduce funding we may see a repeat of the 1980s, when persistent reduction in funding closed roughly a quarter of the country’s theatres. This would be an astronomical loss. Arts funding amounts only to 7p in every £100 of public spending, yet the creative industries, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), account for 6.2% (GVA) of goods and services in the economy, £16.6 billion in exports and 2 million jobs.
Despite this, Chancellor George Osborne announced a 7% spending cut to the DCMS as part of the Spending Review in June 2013. It was probably the best case scenario in a worst case economy. But Richard Mantle, general director of Opera North, pointed out that ‘it’s a 5% cut on top of a period of quite severe cuts…since 2011, so it’s the cumulative effect which is the challenging thing.’
That challenge is particularly felt outside the South East. We cannot hold up all British arts to of London theatres, in terms of revenue. This risks an increased split between the South East and rest of the country in terms of arts funding, and thus artistic creation – denying millions the opportunity to enjoy and generate culture. Keith Merrin, director of Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland, is facing a struggle as a result of a 10% cut to local authority budgets. ‘The belief that philanthropy will pick up the slack is simply unrealistic in most parts of the country,’ he lamented.
Making art a commodity most detrimentally risks reducing interest in new culture. It is not just profit that makes art valuable – it is the fresh and exciting risk it takes; the challenges it throws at society’s mores. Creative risk-taking produces excellence and modernity, but artistic figures cannot do this if they are programmed to focus on profits. A desperate need for funding will lead to overreliance on big names to generate the required investment. A cycle of reliance on celebrity artists will ensue – making the art market elitist, and denying opportunities to younger artists.
Above all, art is about more than money. Labelling it with an economic value is harmful. Art is generates a sense of community and identity, and offers a platform for opinions and public discussion. Miller’s speech seemed to sideline all other benefits the arts bring. The fact that art is about more, and that access to it is mostly free, is what makes it so culturally valuable. It is first and foremost a social commodity. Former Arts Council England chair Dame Liz Forgan summed it up well:
“The danger…is that people actually start to believe that because art produces huge economic benefits, we should start directing our investment in culture for its commercial potential. That’s not only philistine, it’s self-defeating, because then you get accountants making artistic decisions, which is as silly as having artists making accounting ones. If you start to invest in art because of an identified commercial outcome, you will get worse art and therefore we will get a worse commercial outcome.”
Culture undoubtedly has economic value. UNESCO has identified the UK as the world’s largest exporter of cultural goods – bigger than the US, Japan, Germany or France – and 40% of tourists to the UK cite culture and heritage as the primary reason for their visit. But this should be a pleasant, unintended (but not unforeseen) consequence of funding the arts. Making financial gain the ends of artistic creation will destroy and commercialise the means.
Miller admitted that ‘culture educates, entertains and it enriches. We must never lose sight of that fact.’ But in times of economic crisis, with harsh cuts being made everywhere, that is exactly what we risk. The British Museum is a pertinent example: the UK’s most popular tourist attraction, part of its appeal is that entry is free of charge – it is accessible to all. As I described with opera earlier this year, art and culture is unifying. If we give it an economic label, we risk splitting its audience by income and depriving future generations of artistic opportunities.
With thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC and the Independent for photos.
When posters started popping up on the Tube for an exhibition of LS Lowry’s work, I was initially (and ignorantly) sceptical. I had only seen the work of this oft-derided artist on superfluous memorabilia, with his little matchstick men making a pretty background for various tea towels and notebooks. So I wandered through the Tate Britain with mild, unconvinced curiosity…
But LS Lowry is one of those artists that come to define the era they work in. To visit this exhibition is to be transported back to aftermath of the Industrial Revolution – from its noisy beginnings to polluted wane.
Though Lowry’s style is often mocked as cartoonish, the exhibition is serious and solemn. Similar work by (mainly French) contemporaries is displayed: York Street leading to Charles Street, Manchester (1913), by Adolphe Valette, shows lights of perpetual industrialisation glowing in gloomy darkness; works by Van Gogh, Camille Pissarro and Maurice Utrillo further encapsulate the feeling of the period.
Lowry enjoyed an affluent childhood, but his family experienced a distinct drop in social standing resulting in a move to the industrial suburb of Pendlebury. His reaction to his surroundings went from loathing to obsession. A solid Lancashire Conservative, his paintings are emotionally distant – perhaps reflecting discomfort with his ambiguous social class. Unique works stand out as offering some personal insight: pencil sketches with anomalous realism; and The Sea (1963) which, though not in the exhibition, is peaceful and organic in contrast to the man-made starkness of his typical landscapes.
But if Lowry’s paintings do not give a picture of the individual, they give a scenic view of society at the time. He said: ‘I have a one-track mind. I only deal with poverty. Always with gloom.’ Emotional remoteness makes his style an absolute political commentary. One review in 1928 called his work a ‘moral essay’. He shows the power of industrialisation when it has a shot at morphing society to suit its development. Cities are depicted where industry steadily crawls over culture – foundries, cotton mills, glass works all abut slabs of terraced housing, which increasingly resemble the blocks of the factories themselves.
Lowry shows the operatic clash between industrialisation’s frantic chaos and the steady British calm: he is at once humorous and bleak, affectionate and despairing. Paintings of churches – such as Saint Augustine’s Church, Pendlebury (1924) – show imposing, Gothic structures masked by industry’s black smoke and dwarfed by factories’ towers, as industrial values dominate the moral: this was the age of business and social mobility. A Football Match (1949) shows the integral role the Football League played in working class life from the late 19th century, and stooped men file into the stadium as they would the mill or mine.
His idiosyncratic ‘matchstick men’ are the stars of his landscapes. He resolutely believed ‘a country landscape is fine without people, but an industrial set without people is an empty shell.’ Lithe, moribund figures are actors on the stage of industrialisation. Clothed in gloomy drapes and caps, they walk with a slanting, tired intent, staring downwards as new constructions tower over them. Emotion is near-impossible to interpret, but Lowry admitted ‘they are symbols of my mood, they are myself. Natural figures would have broken the spell of my vision, so I made them half unreal.’
The cold blankness of his subjects is reserved, but his paintings still communicate with the visitor. The Industrial Revolution is a static, intense period of our history – one we could never recreate. But Lowry’s work, though not melodramatic, conveys the period’s traditional, brusque nature. There is no warmth to be found when a tidal wave of industrial values is sweeping the nation: experiencing at once society decaying and industry thriving.
In later years he became more cartoonish – capturing the pop of post-war decades. Fun Fair at Daisy Nook (1953) crackles with a staccato of atypical colour, and Piccadilly Circus, London (1960) blares the perpetual Coca-Cola logo, meshing the start of Americanisation in post-war Britain with Lowry’s recognisable industrialisation.
The grand finale of the exhibit is a series of five stunning panoramas, painted between 1950 and 1955 – the first time all have been united in one place. None are based on one location, but rather are amalgamated fragments of Lowry’s memory and imagination. This isn’t the history of one place, but the backdrop of all society. With soaring, stretching perspective they compound waste ground on bustling streets and industrious factories. Britain was an ordered wilderness of a society, thrown by the new industry thrust upon it.
Lowry’s retrospective imparts not only artistic spectacle, but an enlightening economic and social commentary. He was fascinated by the ‘battle of life’ and urban fabric. His vivid picture of the Industrial Revolution is an important part of our heritage that should not be neglected. No other artist faced the social change so persistently and characteristically. Though he polarises sentiments, even within a single painting, the intangible absence in his art is unique to experience. He interpreted the change that swept over the nation in a way photographs cannot: realism threaded with eerie confusion as to how this laborious volte invaded Britain.
With thanks to Wikipedia, the BBC, the Guardian, culture24.org.uk and thedabbler.co.uk for photos.
Lowry captured the Industrial Revolution in art, whilst others – most notably George Orwell – did so in other mediums. Boldly printed in the Tate’s rooms is this extract from The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), by Orwell. It describes the bleak, frigid, apocalyptic environment Lowry painted:
‘I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag heaps and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag heaps in the distance, stretched the “flashes” – pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits. It was horribly cold. The “flashes” were covered with the ice the colour of raw umber, the bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks, the lock gates wore tears of ice. It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.’
Mexico fever has taken hold of London. In July it celebrated MexFest – a three-day event offering tasters in Mexican film, architecture and music. The modish La Bodega Negra is being chased by its edgier sister, Casa Negra; whilst Wahaca has become the go-to restaurant for anyone looking for a great last-minute evening. One of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies, Mexico has a culture backdrop to match: its daring and colourful art, architecture, food, film and music may just prove its most successful export yet.
Evidence may be the Royal Academy’s ‘Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940’ – an exhibition showing the artistic reaction to a thirty-year period of political and social change, which gave Mexican art a place on the world stage. Revolution in 1910 brought years of instability, and flowered a cultural renaissance that included some of the seminal figures of the 20th century.
Mariano Azuela said ‘How beautiful revolution is, even in its savagery!’ The exhibition shows that euphoria. Unlike the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, there was little state interference in the arts. Yet every inch is political – containing a unique social interpretation. It was a time of mass destruction and death, but exciting and intense reform. The artistic outpouring the revolution inspired is passionate to behold.
Nor was the movement populated solely by Mexican artists. Many foreigners were intoxicated with its lifestyle. Henri Cartier-Bresson said Mexico ‘is not a curiosity to be visited, but a life to be lived’. Josef Albers pronounced it ‘truly the promised land of abstract art.’ D. H. Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry were both attracted there. Englishman Edward Burra painted watercolour and gouache masterpieces. ‘El Paseo’ (c. 1938) has a sense of film noir, and exposes the huge tension between light and dark in Mexico. ‘Mexican Church’ (c. 1938) displays a pained, organic body in ornate surroundings. It is a faintly pagan depiction of a Catholic scene.
Mexico’s Aztec and natural heritage also inspired artists. The movement is streaked with native elements – more exotic and untouched than American art. Tertiary colours are drawn from its landscape, sometimes slyly blending into spiced shots of primaries. For example, Marsden Hartley’s ‘Earth Warming’ (1932), or Dr Atl (Gerardo Murillo)’s ‘Landscape with Iztaccihuatl’ (1932). Block shapes, clear curves and colour exude the fertility and diversity of Mexico. Forms are larger – hair flows in strands and locks; trees blow in ropes, not leaves.
Mexico mixes the macabre and the carnival-esque. Its imagery is at once bright and violent: bombastic, nationalist and brutally realistic. Francisco Goitia’s ‘Zacatecan Landscape with Hanged Men II’ (c. 1914) shows branching trees lowering bodies to the ground. The ferocious image is utterly organic, and the sun-bleached desert has its own deathly beauty. The motif of a grimacing (often dancing, moustached or sombrero-ed) skull is peppered everywhere – even in José Chávez Morado’s lively ‘Carnival in Huejotzingo’ (1939).
Revolution brought a sense of realism in art – propaganda was out, toil and poverty was in. Thus, photography is just as important a medium as paint. A brutal triple execution is laid out stage-by-stage in picture postcard form. Journalism is mixed with art as freedom of speech was a thrilling novelty.
Heavy socialist views permeate the works in this exhibition. Many portraits have faceless subjects – either blurred by paint or hidden by shadow. They are the unidentifiable worker who props up the country. José Clemente Orozco’s ‘Barricade’ (1931) shows hard, physical work in earthy colours, juxtaposed to the silver of a knife and the red of a revolutionary flag. Bullets blend into muscle and flesh, and contorted shapes hint at the artist’s time as a political cartoonist.
A reward at the end of the exhibition is a tiny self-portrait by Frida Kahlo. André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, was the first foreigner to recognize Kahlo’s talent. He labelled her a surrealist, and though she disliked the tag, it brought her prominence. Married to the equally talented Diego Rivera, she had an affair with Trotsky, and her introspective, Mona-Lisa-like portraits became iconic.
But, the artistic epitome of this period are murals in Mexico, particularly those by Rivera. His epic depiction of Mexican history on the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City is a masterpiece. This is what the RA’s exhibition lacks. Murals were the people’s medium. They were a way to communicate with the largely illiterate population – much as biblical works in Renaissance churches. Firstly political, secondly artistic, they culturally embody their time. The mural movement in the US, (especially in Chicago in the 1960s) was inspired by what had happened in Mexico.
Tensions between earth and humanity, nature and industry, concrete and the organic, the religious and the pagan, all expose Mexico’s varied chaos. There is a saying that we should ‘pity Mexico, so close to the USA and so far from God’. This view is not only changing economically, but culturally. The RA’s exhibition shows the power with which Mexico inspired art in the past, and the creative energy it has to offer the world in the future.
With thanks to the Royal Academy and the Guardian for photos.
‘Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940’ is on at the Royal Academy until 29 September 2013. Details can be found at http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/mexico/.