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.

Caspar: The Ori Gersht

John Virtue: The Sea (Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, 17 January 2015-12 April 2015)

Ori Gersht: Don’t Look Back (Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, 7 February 2015-26 April 2015)

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

As an incomer to southron lands, I guess I should never speak ill of Kent, but Sussex has the edge over it in terms of galleries — Updown, Anthea Turner Contemporary, Mascall’s and Sidney Cooper weighed up against Pallant House, the De La Warr Pavilion, the Jedward and the Towner, not to mention Brighton. Against Chipperfield’s retread of his Wakefield Hepworth design in the (oh go on then) Turner Contemporary, they have a number of glorious modernist or modernist-style buildings and (oh go on then) the Jerwood. More to the point, alongside exhibitions there are collection strategies, but that’s another story.

Towner

That being said, as with the De La Warr, the Towner needs a lick of paint.

First to the top floor, and John Virtue’s monochromatic renderings of the sea. I went to see Maggie Hambling’s Walls of Water, in part because of the virtriolic review by Jonathan Jones,  and that works on a similar principle of abstract expressionist versions of naturalism. Whilst Hambling allows herself colour, Virtue barely gets to grey. Would the Blakeney Tourist Board be chuffed? I was a little disappointed by the paintings simply having numbers and dates (I like that kind of hermeneutic unpacking) and I wondered how some of them can take three years… And yet, that sizeable floor space of the Towner allows for distance and, once you stop, pause, focus, lose yourself, there is something powerful. I reckon you need Ralph Vaughan Williams’s symphony being played, but there is something going on here. Despite myself, I liked.

And then to Ori Gersht, on the second floor, and a photographer who teaches in Rochester.  Central to this show are two films — and I confess to a certain amount of impatience with art films (as opposed to film as art). All too often it’s poor cinematography and I’ve got the joke fairly quickly and how the hell can you view it properly in gallery conditions?

First here, though, a room of photographs, treescapes, mountainsides, a little blurred, a little resembling an album cover, something by Led Zeppelin?

Something, someone, at the back of my head — Caspar David Friedrich, the romantic artist of the mountain top?

Through to a second room — there’s a double, jarring, out of alignment photo of a tree, a silver birch? I have a memory of a painting, I think by Johan Christian Dahl, of a tree, that represented Norway.

And then a further memory, more recent, of someone who did this for Germany. The mind is blank.

Is Gersht in this tradition? [ETA: yes, well, of course… see below]

Onto the film Evaders (2009), a twin screen production which begins… well you watch it on a loop, so you come in partway through, and I’ve lost track, but we have a bearded man in a hotel room, and we have him walking in the dark, and we have wind, we have a storm, we have mountainsides. There is a voiceover, reading Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in relation to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, and Gersht is clearly making a link between Benjamin’s words and his fateful attempted walk to freedom in 1940 from Nazi occupied France across the Pyrenees to Spain. But emigration from Portbou was forbidden  and Benjamin, in ill-health, faced deportation back to a concentration camp. He chose to kill himself. Benjamin is played by Clive Russell (I knew I recognised him) and the music is by Scanner.

A number of the photographs shown near the tree were taken almost blindly out of a moving window, from a train Gersht travelled on between Krakow and Auschwitz — a route Jewish prisoners would have been taken on to the camps, but on windowless trains. There’s a problem with art “about” the holocaust, about aestheticizing atrocity — Adorno’s line “Kulturkritik findet sich der letzten Stufe der Dialektik von Kultur und Barbarei gegenüber: nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch, und das frißt auch die Erkenntnis an, die ausspricht, warum es unmöglich ward, heute Gedichte zu schreiben”, normally paraphrased something like “no [lyric] poetry after Auschwitz”, springs to mind. But it must be engaged with. The moving camera gives an uncanny blurring; in the next room, Gersht is in Galicia, modern western Ukraine, home of his father and other ancestors. These are overexposed, tending to white out, again haunted. Friedrich is invoked in the notes, the romanticisation of the landscape.

This brings us to the second film, The Forest (2005), again on a loop, mostly of a forest and stillness, but with slow, dreadful, ear-splitting, felling of trees. The film slows into slow motion (he filmed at high speed?), again playing with the durée of the image. The loop means you lose the beginning and the end, until there’s a fade to and from black. Where does the work (of art in the age of mechincal reproduction) begin?

The words “The Clearing” allude to Martin Heidegger, and his sense of Being as standing out as in a clearing.

In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting… Only this clearing grants and guarantees to us humans a passage to those beings that we ourselves are not, and access to the being that we ourselves are.

In the film, the labour is invisible,  missing, and I think from an ecological perspective, the clearing hear is ambivalent at back. Sustainable forestry? A century or two of growing over in an extend second of fall? And again, we are viewing this within the context of the mid-twentieth century atrocities of the Second World War. There is a sublimity at work here, but a terrible beauty was born.

ETA:

 Der Einsame Baum

Caspar David Friedrich, Der Einsame Baum (The Lonely Tree, 1822, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin)

A little digging pointed me to Der einsame Baum (The lonely tree, 1822) by Caspar David Friedrich. I’m not entirely sure where I came across it — possibly in a book on Peder Baulke (who was Norwegian but active in Germany). The consensus is that this tree is an oak, and among the interpretations is that it represents the German people — although in 1822 it was still Prussia. The Riesengebirge/Krkonoše mountains in the background (if it is them) are now in the Czech republic but marked a division between Bohemia and Silesia. I’ve been unable to find a copy of Gersht’s photo, which looked to my untrained arboreal eye to be a silver birch. It’s a very different image from Friedrich’s, of course, but  it’s still within the context of German identity.