The Art of the State: 2020 Exhibitions Part One

I guess it’s unlikely (Tier 4) that I will see any more exhibitions before and so a year that began with Jarman and Freud didn’t continue with Van Eyck, Chagall and Astrup … but did manage to include Munch.

I got my money’s worth out of my Art Fund card, just about, and Tate membership and the RAA card makes life a little easier, but you need to be fast to catch the members’ previews.

I have a top ten which is — go figger — a) subjective and b) only mentions artists once.

The Tate was perhaps a little underwhelming — Blake works better on the page than the wall, Beardsley didn’t quite do it for me, Warhol is Warhol and Turner is showing us mostly what we ought to be able to see for free. Dora Maar just got edged out.

I also seem to be rubbish at writing exhibitions up.

2020 Exhaustive and Yet Probably Incomplete List Here / 2020 theatre here

The Top Ten

10 Tracey Emin / Edvard Munch: The Loneliness of the Soul (Royal Academy of Arts)

Say what you will about Emin, but her works make second rate Munch look fantastic. I must come back to this — the paintings weren’t all bad, but I got more Cy Twombly than Munch. You never know, I might get to see this again in Oslo.

9 Quentin Blake: We Live in Worrying Times (Hastings Contemporary)

The rebranded and presumably refunded Jerwood had a Burra et al exhibition I missed and I returned to see if I liked Victor Pasmore any more than last time (spoiler: no). At the heart of this exhibition is Blake’s Guernica — and, no, that isn’t meant to be a joke. I was in tears.

8 British Surrealism (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Dulwich rather oddly twins twentieth-century exhibitions (mostly) with old masters and this brought together some familiar names and some people I’d never heard of. Endlessly fascinating, but shame about the other viewers. (Who say the same about me.)

7 Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age (National Gallery)

A talented pupil of Rembrandt, who goes in his own direction. I went back several times (it was hidden in the ground floor galleries) and later spent time with his work at the Wallace Collection, the Ashmolean and the Queen’s Gallery, Buck House.

6 Rembrandt’s Light (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Dulwich sometimes ventures back pre-1900 and this was a stunning display of the ten years of Rembrandt climbing to his height. You could argue that Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb didn’t need buggering about with by adding a fake dawn lighting effect, or hold out and see it in much brighter light at the Queen’s Gallery. This just about edges out the Ashmolean Young Rembrandt and individual paintings at the Wallace Collection and National (London and Irish).

5 Leon Spilliaert (Royal Academy of Arts)

A stunning, overlooked, Belgian artist, whose work I must have seen in Brussels, and who would be worth a trip to Ostend for (where there are works by his crush James Ensor). I suspect overlooked because he did watercolours rather than oils.

4 Derek Jarman: Protest (IMMA)

I went to Dublin to see this — and nearly kicked myself as it was going to Manchester in April. Should have left it for the spring…. ha ha ha haha (etc.). They seemed unbothered that the catalogue had yet to be published, but having seen it I’m glad I didn’t have to carry it home. I spent a couple of hours going around it and returned a couple of days later. If I’m honest, he’s not a great artist, but he embraces multiple styles and is very moving at times. There was a small exhibition at The Garden Museum, with mainly late work and his gardening tools.

3 Bridget Riley (Hayward Gallery)

I think Riley was one of the first artists I saw, when I started going to see exhibitions more than twice a year and I was still wondering if actually I like design rather than art (see also: Ben Nicholson, Piet Mondrian.) This was a major retrospective, although I suspect I’ve seen most of them before. Like Rothko, she is an artist to surrender to. I can take or leave the spot paintings and, indeed, her colour work, but the stripes are the thing. However, I did like the cartoons — some of which were shown at one of the Mayfair Galleries.

2 Davie and Hockney: Early Works (Towner Gallery)

There was a retrospective of Hockney’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and some contemporary works at a Mayfair Gallery — although the Lightbox single room in Woking gave a better sense of his range. Indeed, I think you could easily do three or four major coherent surveys and only repeat some of the sixties works. But this Eastbourne exhibition edges ahead because, in a rare move, I was accompanied by a friend, and I’d assumed Hockney would wipe the floor with Alan Davie in the same way that Munch did with Emin. In fact, it was probably a score draw, and I almost got the sense that Jarman had tried not to be Hockney and ended up more like Davie.

1 Artemisia (National Gallery)

The exhibition that nearly wasn’t, thanks to COVID. One of the key early woman artists and it is easy to be drawn in by the horrors of her rape and the subsequent trial — but there is a solid career and a canny businesswoman at work. We were perhaps a little short changed by few portraits included — her bread and butter — and the altarpieces are a little off, but almost every picture is a masterpiece. I hope it reopens, but I fear not.

Don’t Confuse Her With the Actor

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War (Imperial War Museum, London, 15 October 2015-24 April 2016)

Do you know you are not allowed to drink beer in the Imperial War Museum? Or – given that I’m fairly surely they sell it in their café – you are not allowed to drink beer you’ve brought with you in the IWM? Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen themed beers in the shop.

I was forced to use a locker for the bottle of Solaris I’d bought for the train home.

I think the last paid exhibition I saw at the Imperial War Museum was Don McCullin – his fantastic war photography. Other photographers, of course, specialise in fashion, or in art, or landscapes or people.

Lee Miller (1907-1977) does art, people, landscape, fashion and war. A rare combination, especially, one might say, for a woman. I’ve seen various exhibitions of her work of late – as if her son Antony Penrose is a man on a mission – most recently her photos of Picasso and her family at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and there’s a vast website at www.leemiller.co.uk. She’s shown up among women surrealists, too.

I don’t think I’d picked up before that she’d been raped as a young child, nor that her father had photographed her in the nude. I recalled nudes of her, including self-portraits, and some of these are on display, along with Paul Homann’s cast of her torso (1939) – an echo of Man Ray’s photo of her – and this suggests an apparent degree of bodily freedom that seems a little odd. Exhibitionism as defence?

She’d worked as a model in New York for Arnold Genthe, George Hoyningen-Huene, Nickolas Muray and Edward Steichen, before going to Europe in 1929 and working with Man Ray as muse, model and photographer. She experimented with the solarisation process – which was also to be used by Barbara Hepworth. On her return to New York in 1932, she set up her own studio, but married wealthy businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and moved to Cairo. Her photography shifted from surrealism to landscape, focusing on the desert and ruined villages in the sands. On a trip to Paris she met the collector and artist Roland Penrose, beginning a long affair with him that would eventually become a marriage. She took photographs in the Balkans, as well as Syria and Egypt, before war broke out.

In theory she should have gone back to the United States, but she had taken a job with British Vogue. Initially she was working as a fashion photographer – it was Vogue, after all – and part of the work was to keep spirits up with the keeping up of standards. But as the war went on, it intruded on the photographs. Models posed in bomb sites or wore gas masks – fashion colliding with surrealism. She took photographs of women in uniforms and doing war work, as well as nurses.

By 1944, she was accredited as a war correspondent for Vogue — there’s an intriguing photograph by David E. Sherman of her in uniform in front of the Vogue cover with a soldier, women and a stars and stripes flag – and she got more involved in the war. The way she tells it, it was almost a lark, but that might be a survivor talking.

She was meant to go to Normandy, after the landings, and to avoid trouble, but she ended up in Saint-Malo, still under German control but heavily shelled by the American army. Unlike other journalists, Miller mixed with and apparently had affairs with the military, and didn’t buckle down to follow the official itinerary. She ended up in liberated Paris – where she photographed fashion shows – and went into Germany. The photographs on display include some of Dachau and Buchenwald, the concentration camps, one being feet in boots, somewhere between a dancer and a fashion shoot. In Munich she entered Hitler’s apartment, Scherman taking a photo of her in Hitler’s bath, nude of course, her muddied boots on the mat, a photo of Hitler on one side, a statuette on the other. It is a grim jest.

That was almost it – she returned to Britain in 1946 and took more photos of Budapest, finally reconciling with and marrying Roland. In 1948, Antony was born; Picasso continued to visit and remained a friend of the family. Miller gave up photography almost entirely – there’s a 1946 photograph of Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, with Ernst as a giant and she had photos in the 1955 The Family of Man exhibition curated by Steichen at MOMA, New York – in favour of becoming a cordon blue cook and writing about it for British Vogue.

Antony apparently didn’t know about the war photographs until after her death, which seems incredible. Miller was also focusing on helping Roland with his various biographies of artists.

But the body of work is remarkable – black and white, sharp, often square and remarkably well framed. Sometimes the fashion influence is discernible in the reportage, sometimes there is staging, but a dark humour and sense of surrealism often bubbles through. She wasn’t the only female war photographer – the exhibition mentions Margaret Bourke-White (1904-71), who was also with the US Army and had been in the Soviet Union in 1941 when the Germans invaded – but hers remains an impressive body of work.

If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next

Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War (Pallant House, Chichester) 

One of my favourite art spaces is the Pallant Gallery in Chichester, in theory three hours away by train (although Southern/South Eastern buggeration made this three and a half) – via something from the market and a coffee first and then a pint post charity shops. There’s a twenty-first century extension, which either filled a gap or replaced some indifferent building, and the Georgian era gallery complete with squeaky floor boards. The Pallant collection specialises in twentieth century art, mainly British, with London and Sussex artists well represented, plus smart local collecting. That the nearby cathedral was and is sympathetic helps.

imageI think I’ll have more to say about Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War, which closes on 15 February 2015 but moves to the Laing Gallery, Newcastle from March. I only know the barest outlines of the war, I’m afraid, a bloody struggle between Nationalists (supported by the Nazis) and Republicans (supported by Russians), in effect extending the Second World War back to 1936. It became a rallying cause for the Left in Britain, with poets, writers and artists heading off to fight or drive ambulances, largely on the Republican side. One atrocity led to Picasso’s astounding Guernica, shown in Britain at the Whitechapel, among other venues. A tapestry version was at the UN for many years, and was covered up when Colin Powell and John Negroponte spoke in front of it in 2003 during the lead up to the conflict in Iraq. The tapestry was moved to be shown at the Whitechapel – it was astounding when I saw it – and apparently is now in San Antonio. The Nationalists won and Spain became an authoritarian society until the death of General Franco in 1975.

Aside from participating in the conflict, there were a variety of responses from British artists. Partly there were various posters and portfolios, raising money or drawing attention to the suffering, starvation and refugees, clearly propaganda but bipartisan as the fund raising drew no distinction between Nationalist and Republican. Most artists were pro-Republican, seeking for Neville Chamberlain to change his neutral stance at the point that he was also appeasing Hitler. Roger Penrose and three other artists spirited Chamberlain masks at a May Day protest. (Burra was ambivalent, distressed apparently by the destruction of churches – a number of cartoons in the exhibition critique the Catholic church; one artist whose name I forget was pro-Nationalist, Wyndham Lewis was also broadly pro-Franco). A number of British artists had visited Spain in the 1930s, perhaps drawn by the light, and so there was the sense of a familiar landscape being destroyed. John Armstrong painted isolated ruins against blue skies – in devastating pictures that recall the surreal cities of Max Ernst. Of course, many of these artists were inspired by surrealism and were part of a British surrealist movement, linked to Picasso via Penrose. The Spanish Civil War seems to be the unconscious to their art – and also the work of Moore and Hepworth. The nightmares of the sleep of reason can also be found in Goya’s incredibly disturbing prints The Disasters of War, inspired by the Spanish Peninsula Wars (1808-14), which I first saw at the Whitworth, and which were shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1938 and provided a language for a response to such atrocities.

There are all kinds of striking works – Burra’s watercolours, Walter Nessler’s Premonition (1937) of an apocalyptic London  and Clive Branson’s (faux?) naïve socialist realism of Daily Worker selling on the streets. Oddly one of the pieces here – Picasso’s “strip cartoon” The Dream and Lie of Franco I – is also on show at the Rubens exhibition at the RAA.

I’m so glad I saw this before it closed — if you can see it in Newcastle do so.