Monthly Archives: October 2006

“The Movie Kept Moving As Planned”:

Yesterday, I went to see the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art.  I had gone to see this show back in September – I went, but it was such a beautiful late summer day that we actually spent our time sitting on the lawn watching the shadows cross Landform, lapping up the sun and catching up, and we didn’t go in and look at the photographs.

So instead, I went yesterday; my visit coincided with a talk about the exhibition, so I went to that, too.  Usually, I avoid hearing other peoples views of pictures before I see them (I always eschew audio guides) – I want to see the pictures for myself, not filtered through someone else’s eyes.  But since I was there, and they were there, it seemed to make sense to take advantage of the talk: I thought it might be interesting.

It was interesting, although a lot of what the lecturer said I thought was bollocks.  (Not inappropriate, given the nature of some of the photographs.)  She believed in analysing everything with hindsight, and so was reading a lot into the pictures that may or may not have been there – rather taking a view of where things might have been when the photographs were taken (twenty to thirty years ago – between 1976 and 1988).  Academically, she may well have right, but it seemed a bit superfluous to me.  Interpreting Mapplethorpe’s pictures of nude black men as racist (“particularly in the light of the impact of the AIDS epidemic on Africa”) or his photos of nude women as pornographic (“because their eyes are hidden… so you can safely look without being seen”) seemed to miss the point somewhat.  (Indeed, another picture she called pornographic because the nude subject was staring straight at the camera, subjugated; Mapplethorpe couldn’t win!)

However, the words did stay with me when I then looked around the exhibition by myself.

Clearly, some of Mapplethorpe’s pictures were shocking and close to pornography for their time – now, they wouldn’t look out of place in Vogue.  (Well, perhaps a penis tied up in wire might not make it to the newsstands.)  I have seen more explicit pictures by Mapplethorpe – he photographed a lot of gay men together – but they’re not in this exhibition – just some light S&M, a bit of leather; and a wired up cock.

I thought the pictures were about sex and death: death seemed to permeate the show.  Again this could be hindsight – the very first picture was a portrait taken a few weeks before Mapplethorpe himself died; another photo was made much more vivid by the knowledge that the subject had died the next day.  Even his portraits sometimes seemed like pictures of the dead – eyes closed, unbreathing.

Mapplethorpe clearly didn’t like to photograph people smiling – although when he did, the pictures were startlingly beautiful; perhaps their rarity made them shine in the exhibition.

As well as portraits, there were some examples of his flower photographs and some still lives.  His take on flowers – particularly orchids (themselves most perverse flowers; another take on sex) – was stunning: simple and beautiful; though not necessarily alive.  One of his still lives, a skull, was stunning: caught in a diagonal shaft of light.

It contrasted interestingly with a self portrait, in which he was holding a deaths-head walking stick; his face is out of focus, his fist gripping the stick is sharp.  That picture was taken the year before he died.

All Mapplethorpe’s pictures seemed very well composed and lit: a lot of high contrast blacks and whites.  (That may be why I like them: I like high contrast pictures.)  His nudes seemed to make the sitters into statues – classical poses, some on pedestals (although the lecturer said this was akin to slavery – she did put a political spin on everything; she may have been right, but I didn’t see it).  Most of his work was undertaken in a studio (although I have just been looking through “Lady”, his book of photographs of body builder Lisa Lyons – which are all outdoor or location shots); and he clearly kept control of the photos.  Interesting, though, he didn’t do his own printing.

It was an interesting show, though it left me somewhat colder than I had expected – I like his work, and I have been looking at his pictures since I first heard Patti Smith’s “Horses”, for which he took the cover photos (and which, you may recall, is the record that changed my life; or, at least, one of them) – several portraits of Patti Smith appear in the show.  I think it is because a lot of the sitters seem to have the life sucked out of them – the pictures seem to say more about Mapplethorpe than their subject.

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“Autumn Leaves”. October 2006.

I used to have my answerphone message suited to the season. At Christmas, it would play a rather cheesy Charlie Parker recording of “White Christmas”; spring would be Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring”; then Basie’s version of “April in Paris”, and several month’s of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans’ “Summertime”.

And then, for a long, long while, it got stuck on “Autumn Leaves” – the Cannonball Adderley/Miles Davis version – the definitive arrangement.

Driving south along the A83 the other day, I was listening to Jazz Line-Up on the radio, and they played a beautiful vocal version of the tune. I hadn’t really listened to the words before – I don’t think I have the tune with vocals – and concentrating in the car, they struck me as rather beautiful, in an October, melancholic way:

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands I used to hold

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winters song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall

– Johnny Mercer

Along similar lines, I recently read the Time Traveller’s Wife – I’ll probably talk about that some other time – but it contained several lines of poetry I rather liked. I don’t read poetry – it doesn’t make sense to me – but I did like these lines:

The heart asks pleasure first
and then excuse from pain

– Emily Dickinson

Big Art.

Two of the festival exhibitions in Edinburgh look at big art.  Though the festival is long over, the art shows carry on into October and November – with one going on until January.  Which is good, since it means one can space out the visits and not get too overloaded.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop me waiting until the last minute before seeing the shows.

Van Gogh and Britain

This was a funny show: it was like it didn’t know why it was there.  The precept was to gather together a series of paintings that had some connection with Britain – they had been bought at some point by British collectors.

But this meant it was a show which lacked coherence: it wasn’t a complete review of Van Gogh’s painting, although it was arranged chronologically; the only thing that the works had in common aside from Van Gogh was that they had been owned at some point by someone living in Britain.  And, of course, that the National Galleries of Scotland could get the loan of them.

There were some good paintings – some of Van Gogh’s iconic works: A Wheatfield, with Cypresses and Olive Trees (both of which are on display in the National Gallery of Scotland), for instance; but the whole didn’t really enthuse me.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses
Vincent Van Gogh – A Wheatfield, with Cypresses – National Gallery of Scotland

Perhaps it was down to the familiarity of the images.  Van Gogh was very prolific, and maybe he should have weeded out the works he wanted to keep for posterity – though it isn’t his fault the market in his work soared after his death.

There was one aspect I found particularly annoying.  Because the exhibition was based around the ownership, the text accompanying the pictures focused on the owners and the prices they had paid for the paintings.  For me, this seemed to miss the point of the pictures completely.  I didn’t really care who had owned the painting or how they were ahead of their time, buying them when no one else would.  There was one sad story though: A friend of Van Gogh’s, Alexander Reid, sent one of the pictures – his portrait – home to his father in Glasgow; he hated it and sold it quickly to a dealer for £5 (albeit that that is about £22,000 in today’s money!).

Ron Mueck

Ron Mueck is a sculpture; I hadn’t heard of him before the publicity for this show.  He started off as a model maker – he worked in Jim Henson’s studio, before working as a model-maker for advertising.

He became a sculpture in the nineties, making giant images of people – and minutes ones, as well.  They are frighteningly realistic – but huge.  I found the exhibition quite disturbing, though it was hard to say why. 

I couldn’t help thinking that this was craft rather than art: he is very, very good at recreating the human form, in all its detail – men’s chins that need shaving; sweating follicles; a newborn baby’s head with blood and gunk (the baby was about ten feet long).

Ron Mueck – In Bed
Ron Mueck – In Bed – National Gallery of Scotland

And it did disturb me – I felt like Gulliver in Brobdingnag looking at the resting woman (and where did they find such a huge duvet?!) – but I am not sure that it made me think very much, other than that this was an amazing technique.

It was fascinating and beautiful, but also left me quite cold.