Sunday, 29 January 2017

Lockwood Kipling:From London to Lahore.

Rather annoyingly you're not allowed to take photos in the V&A's rather grand, and free, exhibition Lockwood Kipling:Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London. Then again it was so artefact heavy it'd have been a problem narrowing down just what to snap.

John Lockwood Kipling (1837-1911) is probably more famous these days as the father of Rudyard but during the Victorian era he was a renowned designer, illustrator, creator, teacher, and journalist. The Arts and Crafts movement (against industrialisation and for craftsmanship) of the time shaped his career and he was very much a product of his times.

Born in North Yorkshire his visit to the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 inspired him to train as a designer and modeller. A particular highlight for him was the Indian section and many of the Indian objects were later bought for the V&A, then called the South Kensington Museum. When he moved to London eight years later Kipling used the training he'd received in the Staffordshire potteries to help with the museum's architectural decoration. If you've ever sat out by the lovely garden and pond there you'll have seen his work.

The exhibition is broken up into various sections relating to different places he lived and worked. In 'South Kensington' we're given carpets, textiles, scarves, shawls, plates, arms, armour, spice boxes, and helmets. Each item as lovingly created and detailed as the other.

In 'Bombay' one can ponder drawings of local crafts people, jail carpets, a wooden toy monkey, turban cloths, and photos of the city now known as Mumbai. To my British eyes it's a far more exotic selection but equally delightful and intricate.

Kipling had moved to India in 1865 and it was where he'd spend most of his professional career. It was an unstable time for the subcontinent and the Raj sought to assert its control in many ways. Hardly the worst was its use of commercial design but even that came with problems. Factories in the Midlands would create objects with the Indian style decoration that had already become enormously popular in the UK. These cheaper mass produced  goods were sent over to India for sale damaging local markets.

Kipling, living there with wife Alice and the infant Rudyard, was teaching architectural sculpture at Sir J J School of Art and Industry in the city and there he and others controversially added Indian motifs and styles to European designs. It was a more delicate attempt at incorporation than the factories back in the old country and would appear to have come more from the heart than the wallet. That's how the V&A are telling it, anyway.

The Bombay of Kipling's day was expanding rapidly. The American Civil War had seriously damaged that nation's cotton industry and Bombay had become the world's leading cotton exporter. This meant lots of new buildings - and lots of commissions for Kipling.

Whilst the older cities of Calcutta and Madras had favoured neoclassical architecture the new buildings springing up across the Marathi capital generally favoured the Gothic Revival style (as you can see below).

After a decade in Bombay Kipling was appointed principal of the Mayo School of Industrial Art in Lahore and Chief Curator at the Lahore Central Museum. There are a couple of fascinating films on show where you can take a bird's eye view of the architecture of both Mumbai and Lahore. It's interesting to compare and contrast the differences between the two cities.

Lahore had been the ancient Punjabi capital but in 1849 it'd been annexed by the East India Company. Big businesses pretty much create their own laws these days but at least they don't actually invade countries any more! Don't need the bad publicity I suppose.

The specimens on show in 'Lahore' are, possibly, the most fascinating of all. Popular prints and photos of the time, drawings of the mosque of Wazir Khan, a wedding chest, supposedly humorous doodles (guess you had to be there at the time), and moralising cutlery crudely illustrated by Indian stereotypes.

Whilst in India Kipling had become the go to guy for the world fairs that followed on in the wake of the Great Exhibition. He curated shows from Glasgow to Melbourne to Paris to Calcutta. The lacquered boxes, armlets, and armchairs that make up this small part of the retrospective are a little lacking in comparison to the rooms given over to the cities in Kipling's life but, again, there's no dip in the level of craftsmanship.

Ill health eventually forced his return to the UK where, in retirement, Kipling and his colleague Bhai Ram Singh, a former student in Lahore, received two royal commissions. A billiards room in Bagshot Park, Surrey and the banqueting hall of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Handy for the garlic festival. He also collaborated often with his now grown up son Rudyard including providing the illustrations for Kim.

He died in 1911 and is buried in the Wiltshire village of Tisbury. This was an eye opening, if occasionally a little dry, look at a man whose work I'd appreciated and enjoyed many times but had never actually heard of. Surely exactly the kind of service a museum should be providing.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Hounded by External Events?

What to make of Maureen Paley's "...Hounded by External Events..." exhibition? It certainly comes with a haughty promise. One that's not exactly matched by its location on a small, run-down trading estate just off the Cambridge Heath Road. You press a buzzer on an unpromising doorway and are let in to a series of standard white painted rooms that are filled with seemingly disparate artworks intermittently broken up with vaguely political slogans painted directly on the walls.

The title of the exhibition is taken from a passage in World Within World. The 1951 autobiography of the English poet and critic Stephen Spender (that's Humphrey Spender's 1934 bromide print of Spender below). In a rather obvious, though completely pertinent, echo of the times we're living in Spender coined the term 'hounded by external events' to reflect his unease about the portentous domestic and international situation he found himself living in in the early 1930s.

The premise of this exhibition (curated by the novelist and cultural commentator Michael Bracewell) is that each generation soon enough rediscovers that sense of unease. The press release speaks of of how 'the rise of fundamentalism' has been accompanied by 'a politics of paranoia'. How 'surveillance, offence taken and demands for atonement abound'. That seems to be a given to anyone but the most deluded but how the artworks that populate this show speak to or about that is not so clear.

We are told that Oscar Wilde decreed that it is not the critic's task to explain the mysteries of art but to deepen them further. Ideas I'd have understood, found admirable even, until fairly recently. But my current thinking is that, perhaps, the rise of fundamentalism needs to be attacked more directly. Through protest, education, and rigorous opposition mostly. Art can have a place but does Kaye Donachie's Did you ever think of me (2016) say anything to you? If so let me know because I can't see anything more than a reasonably pleasant portrait painting.

Serban Savu's Departure (2014) is an even nicer painting. It looks a bit cold, a bit lonely, almost Hopperesque, but why is it paired with the below quote from Samuel Hynes' The Auden Generation:Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s (1976):-

"....and by claiming the right to choose their own ancestors, they were denying the ancestors the past that had provided, and, in a sense, creating their own history..."

John Kelsey's Dans la rue series from 2016 (above) and Lucy McKenzie's Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, and Donald MacLean (2011, below) aren't quite so thrilling to look at. I'm not sure what the Kelsey is about at all and I wonder if the inclusion of members of the Cambridge spy ring who passed state secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II is supposed to make comment on Russian interference in the American election. If so some clarity would've been nice. It's fine to deepen the mysteries of art further but should the same apply to politics?

There's no doubting Gareth Jones' David Bowie Memorial Carpet (1994) is cute and as it's got Bowie in it I obviously liked it because I like almost everything he's in. It's sat in front of the below quote from Walter Kaufmann's Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (1956) which at least sounds like the sort of thing David would've enjoyed:-

"The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body and beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic and remote from life - that is the heart of existentialism'.

Well, I can enjoy an existentialist crisis waiting for a bus so I don't really need to visit a gallery to be reminded of that. Although galleries tend to be warmer than bus stops and have nicer people in them too. There's a series of untitled Lithuanian prints from Andrew Miksys taken between 2003 and 2010 and another quote. This time from the gloomy 19c Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, writing pseudonymously as Johannes Climacus, in 1846's Concluding Unscientific Postscript:-

"...out of love for mankind, and out of despair at my embarrassing situation, seeing that I had accomplished nothing and unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, and moved by a genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I conceived it as my task to create difficulties everywhere..."

He doesn't sound like the sort of guy you want to go to a party with. But, for the first time in the show, his morose words matched with Serban Savu's rather excellent oil paintings. The Card Players (2011) is set on a grey boring day with a group of men idling away their day in the park. It seems like they've no work and very little money. It seems like this day is much like every other in their lives. You can imagine them, hands in pockets, shuffling their feet to keep warm. A very real moment in a very unreal exhibition.

Small Talk after Lunch (2012), again by Savu, is just as good. Very similar in fact. The younger men in this painting waste an afternoon, presumably a sunnier one, in the garden of a tower block as a white van passes by. We don't know where it's been and we don't know where it's going. It's kind of how I felt passing through this gallery. There was some good art, some not so good art, some pretentious quotes, some thought provoking questions but what there was most was a concept so high I couldn't get over it. The mysteries of art have, indeed, been deepened. If that's a good or bad thing you'll just have to decide yourself.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Maggi Hambling:Distilling the essence.

"Drawing is an artist's most direct and intimate response to the world. Charcoal, graphite, and ink are each full of endless possibilities. I try to distil the essence of the subject and capture the life force of the moment. The challenge is to touch the subject with all the desire of a lover" - Maggi Hambling, 2016.

Maggi Hambling is better known for her sculptures. A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square must've been seen by millions of Londoners and tourists. Her Scallop that stands on Aldeburgh beach as a tribute to composer Benjamin Britten is equally iconic. Her paintings, too, mainly of waves and portraits, have earned her great acclaim.

The British Musuem's current exhibition Touch:Works on Paper takes a look at her drawings. Ascending a rather steep staircase into the room where they host Michelangelo's Epifania cartoon we're greeted by Hambling's charcoal Sebastian in a Hermes Scarf from 2004. Horsley, who died of a heroin and cocaine overdose aged 47 in 2010, was, nominally, an artist but he was more known for his extravagant dress sense, his dissolute life style, his use of prostitutes, and travelling to the Philippines to witness a crucifixion. His own one! Very much an old school Soho character. Hambling's portrait captures both this wantonness and what Stephen Fry, speaking at Horsley's funeral, called his 'essential sweetness'. Horsley's coffin was carried away accompanied by T.Rex's 20th Century Boy.

Hambling's artistic remit was fairly wide. She drew a stuffed rhino from an Ipswich museum, a bullfight in Barcelona, her dead mother, her dying father, Sir Georg Solti conducting, and skulls inspired by a trip to Mexico. The acrylic and collage Reclining Nude, Back View comes from 1965 when Hambling was studying at Camberwell School of Art. It's fifty years older than the newest work in this show proving that this, truly, is the fruit of a lifetime's labour and passion.

Max Wall and his Image (1981, above) veers a little close to sad clown territory but captures something of the charm of the odd looking man who used to scare the shit out of me when he came on telly when I was a kid. 1992's Amanda Leaning Over shows, in charcoal, the actress and former dancer Amanda Barrie. She went out with Billy Fury, appeared in Carry On films, and finally in Coronation Street as Alma where she had the indignity of marrying Mike Baldwin. It's nice that Hambling seems to make no distinction between the highbrow and the lowbrow. I think it's an approach more art, and more life, could benefit from.

Curator and art historian Sir Norman Rosenthal certainly belongs more to the former camp. The monotype (whatever that is) above from 1992 shows the former Exhibitions Secretary of the Royal Academy worked up from a few scratchy lines and marks. It's not a dissimilar technique to Lucian Freud and Hambling was using it as far back as 1963 as you can see from her Seated Female Nude etching from that year. It captures a realistic beauty and we get to feel like we're voyeurs looking in on a private moment. Or at least I do. Maybe that's my problem! I don't get out so much these days.

Perhaps I need to walk along the seafront a bit more. It certainly inspired Maggi Hambling. The way the high waters challenged the solidity of life. Wall of Water (2014, above) and Wave XI, an etching and aquatint from 2009, capture something of nature's seeming unpredictability, its beauty, and its awesome power. Not bad for a couple of square feet of black and white daubs.

My favourite of this section is Sea and Sky, Rottingdean, Morning, 1976. Hambling's use of ink here is wonderful. The bird floating in the sky in the upper reaches of the work really helps define the feeling of the great outdoors. It makes me want to get out walking again. Which I certainly will be doing soon.

Hambling could put her ink to many different ends. Below we can see Stephen (Fry) Falling Asleep from 1993 and, below that, the recently departed and much loved art historian, critic, and educator John Berger from 2000. Hambling visited Berger at his home in the French Alps and they became good friends. Her portrait manages to be both loving and intense. I think she really manages to convey Berger's fierce, yet friendly, intellect. He must've been honoured.

In some ways Berger reminds me of Beethoven in this portrait. A composer Maggi Hambling chose when she appeared on Desert Island Discs so perhaps it's no coincidence.

There are two outliers in the show. Henrietta Eating a Meringue (2001) is a plaster showing the sitter, and muse (that fucking word again, it's even written on her grave in Brompton Cemetery) of Freud and Bacon, Henrietta Moraes. It's far more abstract than anything else in the show.

Finally, as you leave, there's the ink and acrylic Edge (2015). A bold slash of colour that shows Hambling's interest in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and, very obtusely, attempts to say something about global warming.

For a small, and free, show of what may be considered an artist's minor works it'd been astonishingly all encompassing and disparate. I enjoyed it a lot.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Terrains of the Body.

The full title of the Whitechapel Gallery's current show is Terrains of the Body:Photography from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It's the kind of title, and the kind of museum name, that seems to provoke a certain type of man, normally one who thinks he's making a hilarious and original point, to ask, in mock or genuine outrage, "Museum of Women! Why isn't there a Museum of Men?"

We've seen a very clear example of this kind of behaviour in the last few days when the odious and oily toad Piers Morgan criticised the Women's March in much the same way. Well, the reason there was a Women's March and not a Men's March is because the US has just elected a sexist, openly proud sexual abuser to one of the highest offices on the planet and because, historically, men have had a better deal of it than women. Especially men like Piers.

The reason there's a National Museum of Women in the Arts is very similar. Men have traditionally been hugely over-represented in the arts world. If you doubt this make yourself a list of all the female artists you've heard of and then one of all the male artists. Obviously as subjects, particularly nude ones, and 'muses' women have been pretty well represented but what the Whitechapel show aims to do is present female photography from the perspective of both subject and object. Female artists aiming their cameras at female bodies to express identity, communicate experiences, and give life to imaginations. Seems pretty admirable to me and along with recent Photographers' Gallery shows like Feminist Avant-Garde of the 70s and Simon Fujiwara's Joanna it all helps to go some way towards creating a necessary corrective to a prevailing hegemony.

If that didn't piss off the alt-right apologists enough many of the seventeen artists exhibited here are foreigners too. Haven't they heard? Brexit means Brexit! Five continents are represented in these photos all showing women as both observers and protagonists. But are the photos any good? Well, like most other collections, some are and some aren't. They're certainly difficult to take snaps of without reflections of either yourself or other works in the background!

Nan Goldin's Self-Portrait in Kimono with Brian, New York City (1983) attempts, and succeeds, to portray an intimate yet uncompromising private life moment. The body language speaks louder even than the expression on Nan's face. It's hard to know what to make of German photographer Candida Hofer's Palazzo Zenobio Venezia III (2013, below). It has more in common with the widescreen architectural surveys of her compatriots Andreas Gurksy and Thomas Struth than the other artists on show here and, as such, despite being pleasant enough, is something of an outlier here.

Justine Kurland's Waterfall Mama Babies (2006) seems to be informed by rural idylls, visions received in the wilderness, covens even. She claims influence from Julia Margaret Cameron whose pioneering role as a female photographer looms large over this exhibition. Kolobrzeg, Poland, May 23, 1992 by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra is an uneasy portrait of females who are no longer kids but not quite adults. When discussing with my friend Claire, whose company I had the pleasure of enjoying on this cultural visit, which one of these photos I'd have on my wall it was decided that this would definitely be the most inappropriate.

Also from Holland Alkmaar born Hellen van Meene presented us with a series of untitled portraits. The one above, taken in 1999, appears to be a warm, relaxed, snapshot taken casually but is in fact painstakingly planned and executed. Me and Claire discussed Janaina Tschape's He Drowned In Her Eyes As She Called To Follow Him (Capri Interior) (also 1999) at some length. The hyper-realism appealed to both of us. It really captures the aesthetic qualities of the cold marble floor and the beautiful turquoise colour of the model's dress. It was at this point that I realised that maybe complimenting a sitter on their dress in a theoretically feminist show might've been missing the point a bit. Still, nice dress though. But what's she got on her hand? We looked for ages but couldn't work that one out.

Probably the biggest name in the show was Marina Abramovic and, contrary as ever, she's used this chance to pay homage to one of the men in her life. Her father. A Yugoslav partisan in World War II. Eve Sussman and her collaborative team Rufus Corporation are represented by a freezeframe from their 80 minute video The Rape of the Sabine Women (2005). The still of Greek actress Themis Bazaka seated by the deck of the modernist Lanaras House near Athens offers an odd sense of perspective and is the presence of the cage a rather obvious, even slightly clunky, metaphor? At least Themis isn't in the cage!

Icelandic Love Corporation sound like purveyors of tastefully pedestrian house music for dull wine bars in Putney so it was fitting that their work Where Do We Go From Here? (2000) alienated me at first. I felt a little uncomfortable at seeing a grown woman with bright red lipstick wearing soft white mittens and a bonnet more suitable for a babe-in-arms. It was Claire who pointed out to me this may've been the intention of the artists. I'm a bit slow on the uptake at times.

The South Korean Nikki S Lee, in her 'Projects' series, adopted the dress, gestures, and styles of diverse American subcultures. From Buckeye trailer park dwellers to friends and followers of Queensbridge Houses hip-hop duo Mobb Deep. It asks, intentionally, a lot of questions about cultural appropriation and in both style and execution owes not a small debt to the work of Cindy Sherman.

Your hair just doesn't fall like that of the model in Daniela Rossell's Medusa (1999). On the surface of it an idealised portrait, a masquerade even, but further investigation reveals it to be slightly disturbing. Who or what is the person with the infant's body and the grown man's head tied up in some native American shawl lying next to Medusa on the bed? What does it all mean? It's intriguing. A photographic counterpoint to the surrealist paintings of Dorothea Tanning.

The exhibition comes to a close with a look at the, often dark, history of the female body as a political and cultural background. Arguments about veils, hijabs, and niqabs today just one example of how this is as relevant as ever. Adriana Varejao's Qualquer Coisa (1998, above) shows a painted, possibly tattooed, hand reaching through an opening in a white background. The motif on the hand is based on historical Chinese export porcelain, something Brazilian Varejao regularly incorporates into her work as an emblem of the Portuguese colonial trade that did so much to shape her homeland.

The fact that Iranian born visual artist Shirin Neshat chooses to live in New York to work speaks volumes about opportunities for women in Iran although the work represented in this group show, On Guard (1998) is, sadly, a bit weak. That certainly can't be said for Mwangi Hutter (husband and wife Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter) and their Shades of Skin series from 2001. The welts on the back are upsetting to look at and speak of centuries of slavery and female servitude. As women of colour will no doubt be feeling the brunt of recent political developments as well as hopefully being at the forefront of the resistance it's an appropriate and powerful way to close out a small but compelling show.

If you, like Piers Morgan, are the sort of man who thinks that giving women the same freedoms men already have somehow emasculates you then you're clearly a very very weak man in the first place. Piers Morgan may think feminists hate him because he's a man but, if I can be so bold as to speak on behalf of women for one brief moment, I think they just hate him because he's a moron and a twat.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Season of the Witch.

Last night's British Witchcraft Documentaries of the 1970s at Conway Hall was the most well attended London Fortean Society event I'd yet to been to. In fact host Scott Wood announced from the stage, to a sold out audience, that it was, by some way, the most popular they'd hosted.

Perhaps slightly overawed by such a large, attentive crowd speaker Gary Parsons was a little nervous at times as he related a tale of a strange period in the 70s when witches and witchcraft became at first a cult, and then a more mainstream, concern.

Parsons felt the roots of this flowering lay, in similar fashion to the second wave feminism of the era, in the counterculture of the late sixties. The Beatles Sergeant Pepper album, The Rolling Stones Their Satanic Majesties Request, and, most of all, The Incredible String Band's acid-folk masterpiece The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter.

The use of psychedelic drugs, the concept of expanded consciousness, and the new interest in Indian religions had all helped bring about an openness to new ideas and experimentation. The then Dr Who (Jon Pertwee) could be seen on television at teatime dealing with black magic in The Daemons while Children of the Stones, often seen as the scariest kids tv show ever, dealt with surprisingly advanced themes of psychic bubbles, time rifts, and folk magic.

Gary wasn't here to talk about that so much as the rather more niche documentaries concerning witchcraft at the time. A not inconsiderable problem being that there's very little footage remaining of them. It's believed the BFI have a treasure trove but it's only on rare occasions that they grant access.

The Power of the Witch, featuring Basingstoke as I was informed by Edward Higgins, is available in its entirety on YouTube and I plan to watch it one day soon. A lot of the other documentaries featured large amounts of nudity but unlike the contemporaneous feminist idea of taking back control of one's own body image this was designed primarily for titillation.

Maxine Sanders featured heavily. After being initiated in 1964 her and husband Alex ran the first training coven, The London Coven, in modern witchcraft from a Notting Hill basement. She appeared in the documentaries Legend of the Witches and Witchcraft 70 which were both touched on, though not in huge detail, in Gary's talk.

Husband Alex went under the craft name Verbius and formed, with Maxine, Alexandrian Wicca. They became minor celebrities in the seventies and would perform rites on stage with Leicester jazz rock band Black Widow who, on their debut album Sacrifice from 1970, sung about Satanism and occultism.

There's so many movements involved in witchcraft, devil worship, and the occult that it all starts to get a bit Judean People's Front/People's Front of Judea. It didn't seem to matter to many of the seventies new devotees to all things Wiccan. You could pick up magazines like Witchcraft in WHSmiths alongside the Beano and the TVTimes.

The few clips of documentaries we were treated to featured nice middle class ladies attempting spells that didn't work and then blaming the presence of cameras and a nude and nubile young lady guiding an equally bare, and blindfolded, young man across rocky pathways and dousing his head in water so he can become more at one with the elements. Like mindfulness. But sexier.

The talk was as frustrating as it was fascinating. I'd like to have heard more about the larger interest in witchcraft that was affecting society at the time, if this in any way precipitated the rise of evangelists like Billy Graham, why the craze was so brief, and, maybe most of all, why so many people are taking an interest in it again. In crazy times people seek crazy solutions? Or, at the very least, escapism.

I feel I need to do a bit more homework before I can write anything even remotely authoritative about the subject but I'd definitely be interested in hearing Gary speak on this subject again and, hopefully, next time I'll be better informed and he won't be so nervous.