Of chickens and men. In the first to two otherwise unrelated blogs, Richard Stemp considers some connections between art and politics, and celebrates a monumental bird.

There is no art without politics, I thought to myself the other day as I crossed Trafalgar Square. Built – or rather cleared – to celebrate Nelson’s victory at the eponymous battle, the square has at its centre the Admiral himself atop the eponymous column. He is joined by a number of notable monuments to the great and the good, British military heroes of whom, we are told, we should be rightly proud, and a big blue chicken.

 

Hahn/Cock, Katharina Fritsch, 2013

The sculptures include a spendthrift King and two suppressors of India. That is why I am far more fond of the chicken. Or cockerel, rather  – a big blue cockerel, to be precise, by German sculptor Katharina Fritsch, whose English is surely good enough, that when she titled her work Hahn/Cock, she must have realised the subjects of the other sculptures might be made to look like a bunch of – well – Hähne, I believe is the correct German plural, more paltry than poultry. It stands there, puffing out its chest (as do the other heroes), trying to look as important as possible. The German word for this I learnt just the other week: Schwanzvergleich. You’ll have to look it up. The only differences between Hahn/Cock and the occupants of the other plinths seem to be that it’s blue, and a bird. This was Fritsch’s intention: to puncture the manly posturing of the other figures.  I love its irreverence, I love its sense of anarchy, and I especially love its colour, particularly on a sunny day. It’s made me realise that I hope that the Fourth Plinth remains ever free for a celebration of our freedom in the 21st Century – in Britain at least – to say what we think and to live how we feel. It would be awful if it were replaced by another permanent authority figure, a member of the supposedly great and apparently good who would become institutionalised as a figure of respect.

 

Trafalgar Square, with the National Gallery top centre, Canada House centre left and South Africa centre right: a pleasant place for tourists, or a monument to Empire?

It is, after all, an entirely institutionalised Square. After the British victories at the Battles of Trafalgar (1805) and Waterloo (1815) Britain could (rightly?) claim to be ‘top nation’, and it was thought that this should in some way be recognised and celebrated. It helped that the Regency was in full swing, and when, in 1820, the Regent came to the throne as King George IV, he wasn’t happy with his palace. After all, St James’s had been constructed as a hunting lodge for Henry VIII, and in no way represented the newly affirmed status of the nation. Before long, Buckingham House was converted into a Palace, but not before the King’s stables, not far from Whitehall (which had been the location of the Royal Palace until it burnt down under William III in 1698), were demolished and rebuilt (next to the new Palace) as the Royal Mews. This left an open space for Trafalgar Square, not to mention an ideal location for two of Britain’s great artistic institutions, the National Gallery and The Royal Academy.  Both moved into a new, shared building on the North side of the square in 1838, which filled so rapidly that 30 year later the RA moved to its present location on Piccadilly.

 

George IV, Sir Francis Chantrey, 1828. The bronze equestrian monument was commissioned by the King himself, to go atop the entrance arch designed by John Nash for the courtyard of the newly refurbished Buckingham Palace. However, after the profligate King’s death in 1830, the plans were changed, and before long the archway was moved to the North East corner of Hyde Park – Marble Arch. The sculpture found a temporary location in Trafalgar Square in 1843 – and has been there ever since.

 

By this stage the sculptures had started to arrive as celebrations of Empire, and in 1925 the buildings to the West of the square became a monument to one of the bastions of the British Empire, Canada. Shortly after this, another monumental edifice, South Africa House, was constructed opposite. In this day and age it may seem a little surprising that Canada and South Africa are given such a central role in that celebration of national pride that is Trafalgar Square, a surprise which only goes to remind us that we cannot escape history (as friend and AHA colleague Catherine Macaulay and I never fail to point out to one another). But maybe we can learn from history and escape some of its posturing: we should always be careful about what we choose to monumentalise. That’s why, from time to time, we need a big blue chicken.

Lion, Edwin Landseer, 1860-67. One theory about the lions is that they were intended to cut down the space in the square to limit the size of crowds and therefore the possibility of protest. However, lions (though not Landseer’s) were envisaged as part of William Railton’s original design of Nelson’s Column. It was the fountains, installed originally in 1838, which were intended to limit the size of the square for precisely this reason.

 

 

 

What Can We Learn From The Parliamentary Portraits?

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.

Secession and the City: Portraits in Vienna 1900, by Lucy Speelman

Vienna 1900 – the result of revolution.  As an imperial capital of Austria-Hungary, the city was politically and socially volatile to its core.  It was an avant-garde powerhouse of creativity and radical ideas about taste, aesthetics and multiculturalism.  But just beneath this facade of modernity, the age-old insecurities about social status and national identity still thrived.  Prior to 1900, the city’s liberal climate had attracted immigrants from across the whole Empire, many of whom became successful, wealthy and cultured members of the middle classes.  These citizens were the ‘New Viennese’.  But the liberalism that had drawn them to Vienna was short-lived.

Nationalism, conservatism and anti-Semitism increased with the foundation of the Austrian Christian Social Party under Karl Lueger, who was then elected mayor of Vienna in 1897.  The diversity that previously had been embraced was suddenly rejected, and the newly established middle classes had somehow to prove themselves and defend their position.

 

'Portrait of an Unidentified Seated Girl in a White Satin Dress', Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, 1839

The New Viennese turned to portraiture, in a city where modern art was flourishing.  The National Gallery’s Facing the Modern exhibition addresses these political twists and turns very effectively.  It illustrates how the ambitious middle classes reacted against anti-liberalism using portraiture and theatricality as tools to assert themselves, and how their social instability resulted in a sense of alienation that permeated their whole world.  The first room, titled ‘The Old Viennese’, highlights the significance of the Miethke Gallery’s 1905 exhibition of portraits from the first half of the 19th century.  These portraits were intended to anchor the present to the past; to identify a lineage between the new and old that would pacify the middle classes’ anxieties about their social standing.  The stylistic traits of the works, based on the Biedermeier tradition, also provide an effective point of comparison for the later Secession works.

'Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl', Gustav Klimt, 1917-18
'Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder', Egon Schiele, 1912

The Secessionists took their name from the verb ‘to secede’, meaning ‘to withdraw’.  Like the Impressionists, they rejected the strict values of the academies and embraced the avant-garde, the different and the modern.  The portraits exhibited in this exhibition displayed the vitality and powerful expressivity of the Secessionist painters.  The ‘Big 3’ were represented (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka) in haunting and stunning works like Klimt’s unfinished Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl and Schiele’s expressive and immediate Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder, but there were also some real gems to be found in some of the lesser known artists.  Isidor Kauffman’s Young Rabbi from N. is a poignant statement about what it meant to be Jewish in an anti-Semitic political climate.  This beautiful portrait defends Judaism and its place in Vienna, yet proudly owns its differences.

'Young Rabbi from N.', Isidor Kaufmann, c.1910

The second room reflected the reformed face of domestic values and what constitutes a family portrait; Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality posed serious questions for family life.  The portraits on display here demonstrated a sense of vulnerability, and once again, anxiety.  Schiele’s unsettling work The Family (Self Portrait) from 1918 shows how much family portraits had changed since the work of Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, for example.  Another room focused on the self-portrait and how self-definition was paramount, and another on women artists and their position within the artistic infrastructure.  Broncia Koller’s Nude Portrait of Marietta from 1907 represents a model as both a studio nude and a portrait, and is strikingly beautiful in its sophisticated simplicity.

'Nude Portrait of Marietta', Broncia Koller, 1907

The penultimate space was dedicated to death and Vienna’s morbid fascinations.  Posthumous and deathbed portraiture were very popular (as were death masks), and while this may seem rather pessimistic to current viewers, these works were often celebratory a well as commemorative.  The idea of the ‘beautiful corpse’ (schöne Leich) embodies this juxtaposition of beauty and dignity in life with beauty after death.  Klimt’s portrait of Ria Munk on her Deathbed (1912) is a perfect example of this kind of celebration.  Her head resting on a pillow, surrounded by flowers, the young woman could be mistaken for a literary maiden asleep, vulnerable yet beautiful, rather than the tragic reality of a young woman who shot herself in the heart.

'Ria Munk on her Deathbed', Gustav Klimt, 1912

Despite scathing reviews from the Guardian, in my opinion Gemma Blackshaw curated a show which informatively and enjoyably combined the old with the new and demonstrates the expressive power of the portrait.  Having just returned from Vienna myself, I can testify to its current magnificence and beauty.  Sadly, much of it is a reconstruction, having been torn apart by war.  But seeing this exhibition before I arrived helped me to imagine what an incredibly diverse and complex climate had occupied the city about a century ago; a radical age of theatricality, wonder, constant change and most importantly, anxiety.

'Portrait of a Lady in Black', Gustav Klimt, c.1894

 

With thanks to the National Gallery.  For more information, please see their website and the exhibition catalogue.

Grimy politics: Vittorio De Sica's 'Bicycle thieves'. A Review by Frankie Dytor

It is . Miserable poverty is everywhere. You can see it physically in the grime encrusted suits of men, but you can also see it mentally in the desperation that pervades every worn and beaten down expression. The portrayal is horrific. Not because you see famine or violence, but because you can see the total absence of dignity, the humiliation of having nothing.

The story follows Antonio Ricci and his futile attempt to find his
stolen bicycle. He is accompanied throughout by his small son Bruno. At the beginning of the film Bruno is full of the confidence that small boys often have, in their imitation of adult mannerisms, cocked head and marked speech. But as the film progresses, stretched out over two endless days, his fatigue slowly conquers him. His father will not help him, will not carry his little body that cannot keep walking. His ‘treat’ is to be taken to a restaurant to
get drunk – because they are ‘real men’. In many ways this is the real tragedy of the film. Antonio is unable to recognise that it is not the bicycle that truly matters, but the hope that can be found in Bruno. It is only at the end that they find some semblance of true understanding with one another.

The cheeky swagger of Bruno

The cinematography, described by most film critics as Neorealist in
style, powerfully evokes the hunger felt by Rome’s citizens at the time. It seems that this is a predominately destructive hunger. It is not the hunger of change, hope and revolution. It is the hunger of a stray animal, feral and self-centred. In the market-place, wheedling sellers grab and shove, forcing their wares even upon the six year old child. Gangs are clearly commonplace, and identity is obliterated in the pushing crowds.

The pluralisation of the title, occasionally omitted by some translations, is crucial for determining the tragic nature of the film. Without wishing to ruin anything for those who have not yet seen this masterpiece, there is more than one thief in the film. And certainly one of them, De Sica hints, is the State
for permitting such terrible desperation. The final shot of the film is as stirring as any horror film – you’ll have to see it to find out what it is – and leaves us with a lingering question: what redemption is there for Antonio and Bruno now?

Vittorio De Sica, 1948, Italian

The Palace? of Westminster: AHA alum Cassia Price discovers a use for beauty in the Houses of Parliament

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.)

 

The Lords' Cloakroom, in the holidays

 

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.

The Thrones in the Lords Chamber, background
The Thrones in the Lords Chamber, background

 

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.

 

The Commons during PMQ, with much standing and sitting, files on laps and restless jeers
The Commons during PMQ, with much standing and sitting, files on laps and restless jeers

 

The Lords: more pomp but a quieter setting for debate
The Lords: more pomp but a quieter setting for debate

 

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.

 

The Prince's Chamber, though really a rather female dominated setting

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.

 

 

The Clock Tower and Portcullis House at the end of the day from across Westminster Bridge
The Clock Tower and Portcullis House at the end of the day from across Westminster Bridge

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.

Photos thanks to www.theguardian.com/uk, parliament.ukblogs.spectator.co.ukhttp://www.flickr.com/photos/uk_parliament/5765138884/

A Visionary Modernist: Helena Roy reviews Ibrahim El-Salahi’s retrospective at the Tate Modern…

Ibrahim El-Salahi laments that ‘for decades African artists have been working in a vacuum.’ Worse than being criticised, they have been ignored. Hopefully, though, things are changing. El-Salahi is the first African artist to get a retrospective at the Tate Modern. His work is a heady mix of paintings, illustrations, drawings and critical writing, drawing upon African, Arab and Western traditions. With his evocative, but identifiable, African surrealism, El-Salahi’s work makes for a fresh and challenging encounter.

Sudanese El-Salahi learnt Islamic calligraphy at a young age, which formed a major technique in later work. He studied at the Slade in London, where he discovered Western modernism. His style betrays a mix of academic training and traditional Sudanese practices; and the exhibit traces his artistic journey through Sudan, his international arts education, political imprisonment and consequent self-imposed exile.

Ibrahim El-Salahi at work today

El-Salahi deconstructed calligraphy to shape his work, mixing it with Islamic symbolism: ‘Animal forms, human forms and plant forms began to emerge from these once-abstract symbols.’ He wanted to bring out a recognisable element for an Arab and African audience – calligraphy can be found everywhere on the continent. Inspired by the technique, he applies it to different mediums – creating a perpetually free-flowing stroke. He doesnt differentiate between drawing and painting: ‘It’s all art, works of art.’

The context El-Salahi is placed in is immediately reflected in his work. With such a diverse background, the retrospective shows his style is a fusion of cultures. A recent trip to Alhambra in Granada, Spain, resulted in huge canvases of sinuous flamenco dancers captured in Moorish lines. His signature tones of burnt sienna, ochre, yellow ochres, whites and blacks, he attributes to ‘the colour of the earth in Sudan’.

Between 1957 and 1972, he travelled around Sudan, looking to reinvigorate himself with cultural inspiration. The result is a mélange of mammoth ink drawings and earthy shading. The colours of the Sudanese landscape are heightened to primaries in some areas. Funeral and the Crescent (1963), hints a crescent moon in the corner – an Islamic motif that recurs throughout El-Salahi’s work. The painting is a tribute to the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, whose assassination in 1961 was a pivotal event in the African struggle for decolonisation. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-5) compromises huge contours – lending shape to the confusion of El-Salahi’s earlier works – and shades that mesh with greater calm. Suggestions of calligraphy and dripping paint echo earlier angst, but El-Salahi’s distorted faces are blended and hidden – masked and mask-like in their form.

Funeral and the Crescent (1963) – the crescent moon visible in the top left-hand corner
Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I (1961-5)

El-Salahi’s paintings are organic. He extracts natural forms out of the man-made medium of calligraphy, to give his portraits a cell-like nature. Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams II (1983) encompasses embryonic sinews to create the winding sense of scientific diagrams. This piece is more controlled and sparse than his first. Female Tree (1994) fuses the natural with the human through biology offering a vibrant but simple synthesis.

Female Tree (1994)

His earlier work shows a confusion of ideas. His pieces, in process and outcome, are puzzles – unsolvable to the viewer, or even the artist himself. El-Salahi reveals: ‘To tell you the truth, when I am working, I’m not at all aware of what it is going to look like.’ The final piece ‘shows me things possibly in my subconscious mind.’ His paintings have spontaneity about them, but also an inadvertent complexity. He creates gigantic ink drawings, alongside Freud-esque portraits. His work reveals a backdrop of inspiration from Pissarro, Cézanne and Seurat, to Islamic manuscripts and Renaissance paintings. An early work, Self Portrait of Suffering (1961), shows a tribal mask-like face pained and confused with a mass of infinite, dizzy spirals. The earthy tones of the distorted visage are etched physically with sgraffito, and emotionally with suffering.

Self Portrait of Suffering (1961)

In 1972, El-Salahi returned to Sudan to take up a job as Director General for Culture at the Ministry of Information, despite Sudan being under a military dictatorship. In 1975 he was accused of anti-government activities and held without trial at the infamous Cooper Prison for six months. El-Salahi consequently entered a self-imposed exile from the country, commenting: ‘terrible as it was, I learned a great deal.’ The experience replaced his murky, philosophical tones with bold, introspective black and white. His drawings embody his view that ‘in the end all images can be reduced to lines.’ This powerful shift resulted in The Inevitable (1984-5), which greets the visitor to the exhibition with an imposing and intense collection of lines: modernist and lithe, displaying an angular emotion.

The Inevitable (1984-5), placed at the entrance to the exhibition

El-Salahi’s diversity of experience has calmed to a more reflective spirituality in his most recent work. He now lives in Oxford, and has turned to British countryside for inspiration (resulting in the series The Tree). His work is clearer and more ordered. Lines are sparser, and less curvaceous – perpendicular replacing the swirls. The Day of Judgement (2008-9) uses the blank white of the paper as much as ink – contrasting stark white to black filigree. The bold two-tone forces you to focus on emotion and shape, as colour is not there to overwhelm them. Here, shapes reign supreme, conveying emotion in contorted faces and mismatched bodies, as much as Giotto does through colour and storybook vibrancy in The Last Judgement in the Scrovegni Chapel. One Day I Happened to See a Ruler (2008), is the final piece in the exhibition. The triptych depicts an authoritarian ruler, commemorating the day he took the throne. But El-Salahi undermines his unjustified rule by portraying him naked before his subjects – human as much as they are. Elaborate constructions of shapes parody crowns, displaying false pomp and materialism, and airy, ethereal colours highlight the tenacious nature of his power.

Part of the series The Tree, one of El-Salahi’s more recent series
One Day I Happened to See a Ruler (2008)

El-Salahi is well aware of the lack of direction he experiences when starting a piece. But this need not make his work void of a message. He addresses the visitor thus: ‘What the work means to you is, for me, far more important.’ The pressure on this exhibition to engender interest in African Modernist art is high. To me, this exhibition was an organic offering of another culture – one of vitality, complexity and beauty – and I can rest assured that El-Salahi would be happy with my conclusion.

With thanks to The Guardian, The Independent,  theupcoming.co.uk and Cornell University for photos.

‘Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist’ is on at the Tate Modern until 22 September 2013. Details can be found at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/ibrahim-el-salahi-visionary-modernist.

Delaroche and Damien Hirst: views on capital punishment – by AHA alum Helena Roy

Politicians, campaigners, philosophers, journalists and many others always clamour to express their views on sensitive ethical issues through the press. In conjuring an emotion and provoking a reaction, however, art can surpass this medium – on the issue of capital punishment, two pieces stand out to me in doing so.

St Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles, flayed alive for refusing to worship Pagan gods. Damien Hirst’s St Bartholomew: Exquisite Pain symbolises the greatness of freedom of speech and strength to say what you believe.

‘St Bartholomew: Exquisite Pain’ by Damien Hirst

The sculpture conveys a key message: unjustified pain can be overcome to achieve greatness. Hirst says: ‘It has the feel of a rape of the innocents’, but despite this aesthetic the figure still steps forward and displays strength and defiance. The pose is neither timid nor physically hurt. His skin, draped over one arm, is carried as a trophy with the scissors, showing the insignificance of pain inflicted by those who are wrong, and celebrating how resilience against injustice can transcend the petty physical.

Whilst St Bartholomew was killed for obviously unjust reasons, I believe the message criticising capital punishment in general, remains. The taking of someone’s life intentionally is always murder, and even if the accused is guilty, they become a victim. The sculpture objectifies another key argument against using capital punishment: the killing of an innocent man while believing him guilty is an unforgivable tragedy. It also shows the martyrdom offered to those facing the punishment: rise above or defy it and you can be seen as heroic and brave, while your punisher is shamed.

Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, however, I think acquiesces to capital punishment, and to me this destroys its appeal. I cannot deny its artistic magnificence, but it is also cruel, painful and a true example of why capital punishment is so wrong.

 

'The Execution of Lady Jane Grey' by Paul Delaroche, displayed in the National Gallery

Its historical reality heightens the sense of injustice. Lady Jane Grey’s reign lasted nine days – resulting in her execution, aged 16, along with her husband and father: to whom she was a mere puppet.

Painted with uncanny realism, the event is portrayed in a private setting. Although inaccurate, this makes the observer feel like a witness – not a historian observing an informative article. When the painting was first showcased in 1834 it caused a sensation – it is not hard to see why.

While most of the painting is in darkness, Jane is bathed in light – aesthetically asserting her innocence. Fresh straw lies around the block, there to soak up blood that will follow. This makes it even more devastating, as instead of creating a still scene in your head it creates a series of pictures, ending with the death of an innocent girl.

Delaroche’s masterpiece succeeds in conjuring the emotion of watching an execution – it has more emotional punch than many of today’s graphic films. It portrays a state of mind no human should ever be forced to experience: completely contradictory to human nature but the essence of capital punishment.

Jane’s innocence is, like Hirst’s piece, a key argument against using capital punishment. But what makes Delaroche’s work more upsetting is her resignation. Her acquiescence with the execution and passive acceptance – trying to find the block with her hands – gives the piece a sense of hopelessness Hirst’s does not have. Delaroche protests Jane’s innocence with his artistic technique and symbolism – but she does not.

The Streatham Portrait believed to be of Lady Jane Grey

By contrast to Lady Jane Grey, St. Bartholomew was obscure – as an apostle, not even his name is certain. However, in Hirst’s depiction he emerges from his insignificance and there can be no question of his power. His freedom and will, and the pleasure of exerting it and not submitting, as Jane does, makes the sculpture fantastic to witness. The fact that he is overcoming his punishment makes the pain and his killers insignificant, and him ‘exquisite’.

With thanks to mymodernmet.com and Wikipedia for photos.

A study of modern artist Alexa Meade: by AHA alum Helena Roy

Magdalena Sawon, owner of the Postmasters Gallery in New York, pointed out that ‘a portrait is something that’s been with us for 3,000 years – that’s not an easy genre to move forward.’ She was referring to the fascinating achievement of modern artist Alexa Meade’s work – a heady fusion of portrait, performance and photography.

Meade is an American artist specialising in sculptural media, installation art and modern portrait – with some filming in her repertoire as well. Now 27 and a successful professional artist, she comes from a political background (she holds as BA in Political Science, and has worked in PR at Obama’s Denver headquarters). Meade has said this ‘led to a fascination with the possibilities of repackaging source texts and adding superficial modifications that would profoundly alter perception.’ She never attended an art school, or even took advanced art classes.

Perhaps having barely any background in art has made it easier for her to be ground-breaking. Her work is raw and real, blurring the line between fiction and reality – she believes that ‘what one experiences cannot always be interpreted at face value; seeing is not necessarily believing.’

Meade’s ‘Reverse Trompe L’Oeil’ installation was first revealed in October 2009. She applies acrylic paint in large brush-strokes directly to her subjects’ bodies, then photographs them in different settings. When the 3D installation (or ‘performance’) is reproduced in a 2D photograph, the effect is an unsettling piece – close to, but not completely, an oil painting.

‘Alexa Split in Two’, 2010 – a self portrait by the artist

One of the best works to demonstrate her unique method is her 2010 self portrait – ‘Alexa Split in Two’. It is a photo of a performance of the artist imitating herself. The real Alexa reaches over from one side, to create a semi-fictional Alexa with art on the other. The colour, tones and contours she imposes on her subjects are similar to those present in Lucian Freud’s later work. She brings out harsh, exaggerated lines on the face by enhancing shadows and emphasising bone structures, framing faces with angular eyebrows.

Another intriguing work is her series named ‘Transit’ – photographs showing a performance by a live model, painted with acrylic, in the rush-hour subway. Surrounded by people, the model looks out of place – it is like a fantasy in which a figure from a work of art who has found himself in real life. The juxtaposition also shows the power of paint – the overstated contours and colours on the subject make his figure infinitely more expressive and extraordinary than the real-life humans around him.

‘Transit’, 2009 – a series by the artist set in the subway

Her portraits are dynamic and powerful. They showcase the strength painting can give to a subject, but seem to convey more real emotion, as the eyes of the figure remain real and unmasked. It is the subject’s eyes that are always the most unsettling thing about her photographs – we first see an acrylic portrait, but live eyes staring back at us jar with their surroundings, and make the divide between photography and painting hazy.

‘Transit’, 2009 – a series by the artist set in the subway

Meade has described her technique as ‘painting a portrait of somebody on top of himself.’ Her innovative imagination has created works that trick the eye and confuse the senses. The intersection of painting, photography, performance and installation bring together new techniques with old in one stimulating modern mix. And, indeed, gives something new and exhilarating to a genre over 3,000 years old.

With thanks to alexameade.com for photos.