Tag Archives: exhibitions

Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. February 2012.

I’ve just been to the Lucian Freud retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, and I have a lot of somewhat contradictory views about his work. This isn’t surprising, since the exhibition spans seventy years – the first painting, a self portrait, dates from 1940 (when Freud was only 18), the last, an portrait of his studio assistant, unfinished at Freud’s death in 2011.

The early-early pictures are very detailed but somewhat distorted portraits: even then, he painted what he saw rather than what others would have liked to see. What he saw was attractive, though: over time, that changed, as if he saw people as meat – living meat, perhaps, but meat nonetheless.

He was very good at painting eyes, however: the eyes were always alive, reflecting the light, in contrast to the flesh he painted later on.

His later pictures seemed uncomfortably voyeuristic, perhaps because I knew that he was painting his wives (he had several), his lovers (many more) and his children (from both wives and lovers). Many of his nudes appear quite sexual despite also appearing like dead meat – quite a feat, I think.

He painted several composite pictures – two or more people in the same picture, but sitting at different times; and frankly he wasn’t that good at stitching them together… The dimensions are wrong: in “Large Interior, W9”, the nude behind his seated mother just looks really out of proportion, whilst the harlequin in “Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau)” looks outsized, misshapen and contorted.

The way he painted nudes – sexual but dead – creates a strange tension. The knowledge of his relationships adds to this. He seems to have had sex with a great many of his models. (He painted the Queen, too. I wonder…) The pictures can be disturbing. There is real sense of mortality in a lot of his work – perhaps because the nudes so often look like corpses. (It may, of course, just be me.) Even the self portraits look a bit dead.

There are several photographs shown as well – most by David Dawson, his last studio assistant, but also images by Henri Cartier Bresson and photographers from Freud’s Soho drinking circle. These said more to me about Freud than his paintings, perhaps because I relate to photographs. Which is again a little disturbing. Was he really so hidden? (In his self portrait “Interior with Plant, Reflection, Listening” he disappears – only part of his body is painted: so perhaps his painting was all about hiding.)

A Sweet Time at Tate Liverpool. November 2010.

I spend a couple of hours at Tate Liverpool today. It is over a decade since I last visited.

It is a great gallery: a wonderful building, and a very good size – there’s a lot there, but you can cover it all in an hour and a half or so.

There were two exhibitions on: Touched, part of the Liverpool Biennial, and displays from the permanent collections – three different views, each curated by a different artist – Carol Ann Duffy, Wayne Hemingway, and Michael Craig Martin.

I wasn’t too impressed by the quality of the art in Touched – but it really made me think, which I guess means it worked, at least on some level. I didn’t like the art, but instead I liked the ideas. Is the art the artefact or the idea?

There were two pieces – both installations – that grabbed my attention. One, by Eva Kot’atkova (I hope I got that right!) was all about stories we tell: it was called “Stories from the Living Room”. Everywhere I go, stories and the ongoing narrative seem to dominate. Yesterday I ran a workshop for a client to establish the story for an individual customer – that was their language, not mine. Narrative seems to be the driving idea – the narrative, even – for our time.

The other piece I liked was by Jamie Isentein. “Empire of Fire” featured lighted candles, safety equipment, and the set of Jean-Paul Sartre’s stage play “No Exit”. And Ms Isenstein’s hand. It was full of humour, but really disturbing – positively spooky.

The curated displays from the permanent collection were full of school visits. Loud, but not unruly – they were very well behaved. Carl Andre’s “144 Magnesium Squares” was surrounded by kids. Most pieces were protected by signs prohibiting use touching or markers to make us keep our distance; not the Andre. But no one went too close: it was surrounded by kids keeping their distance. This was strange. I asked one of the many Tate staff if one could walk on it, and he said yes – he was amused by the way no one dared step onto the metallic squares. So I did – to the horror of the schoolkids. Suddenly I, rather than the art, took their attention. It felt like I was participating in the art.

The permanent collection has pieces from many of my favourite artists – Richard Long (two pieces on display – a word-piece and a slate circle), Anthony Gormley, lots of Picasso, Donald Judd. It was wonderful walking around looking at these works. Magic.

Rodchenko at the Hayward. February 2008.

The Hayward Gallery in London has an exhibition of the Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko.  I wasn’t aware of seeing his work before, though looking at his pictures created a strong feeling of familiarity.

Born in 1891, he was practicing as an artist at the time of the Russian revolution, and he felt his art needed to make a strong revolutionary statement.  He worked in photomontage, creating new images by combining others’ photographs, and that got him interested in taking his own pictures. 

His images are full of angles and abstraction – lots of strong lines, rarely vertical or horizontal; I couldn’t help wondering the extent to which these were created in the darkroom rather than the camera – it is a lot easier to move a piece of photographic paper to set up diagonals than to hold a camera at an angle to take a picture. Continue reading

Tate à Tate: visits to Tates Modern and Britain. November 2007.

Tate Modern first, for the installation in the large Turbine Hall.  A space within a space: Shibboleth is a long, snaking crack in the concrete floor: the artist, Doris Salcedo, creating an absence rather than a presence.  It is an interesting piece (though not half as interesting as the accompanying leaflet describes – “…her work strikes to the very foundations of the museum”: no, I think not – perhaps just a few inches down).

It is fun – the part of the installation is watching other people’s reactions (as surely as they were watching mine).  The crack – variously several inches across to only a hair’s breadth – goes the length of the Turbine Hall; it splits and twists, and at times real, apparently accidental, cracks go off at right angles.

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I had read in the paper how the artist was disappointed that so much of the media reaction had been to ask how she had done it, rather than focusing on the intrinsic nature of the work itself.  She was being naïve: the one thing one really wants to know is how was this done.  (It is probably easy to guess; indeed, I’ll bet that if I googled that question, I’d find the answer – though I feel the question is maybe more interesting than the answer!  My money is that they lifted various concrete blocks from the floor, reworked them – rather beautifully, and, with a careful symmetry across the crack and a wonderful, careless asymmetry the length of the crack, made the space between, and then relaid the floor.)  It was carefully designed; despite being a hole in the ground, there was a lot of surface detail, the side of the crack being carefully and lovingly honed, held together with chicken wire.

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There was a particularly childlike joy in walking along the crack, one foot on each side; at its widest, this wasn’t easy.  There were several toddlers hurting across the floor towards he space, gleefully ignoring the signs all over the Turbine Hall imploring us to watch our step.  It was almost as if the floor had been torn apart in an earthquake whilst the rest of the building was unharmed; I kept waiting for an arm to appear from the space, or Buffy and Willow to come running down the incline.

But ultimately I do not believe it was a great piece of art: as with a lot of conceptual, the idea is fascinating and entertaining and enjoyable, but once past that – well, if I need to read the leaflet to understand what it is meant to be about, I don’t feel the art can have been very good at communicating to me; and so it must have failed.


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The next day, I went to the other Tate in London – Tate Britain, where there is a retrospective of the Turner Prize, with work going back to 1984.  I have been to many of the Turner Prize shows, so must have seen much of the work on display here before, although there was a lot I have no recollection of seeing before.

There is an awful lot to see: twenty one years of work by six or so artists a year.  (The 2007 Turner Prize nominees are on show in Tate Liverpool; and one year, 1990, the prize was suspended – the takeaway blurb, summarising the winners and the press reaction to each prize (courtesy of The Guardian), doesn’t actually explain why this was).  I found it an interesting experience, but mainly because it confirmed in me that I know what I like; or more precisely, I know what I don’t like.

Seeing a lot of the work was like seeing old friends again: that sudden recognition of the familiar.  This happened right through the door, when I saw painting by Howard Hodgkin, and I just smiled; and then I glimpsed a beautiful work by Anish Kapoor – three hollow hemispheres of deep blue pigment: standing by them, I felt my hand would disappear if I stretched into the space inside one of the hemispheres.  This is deeply beautiful and moving work – it pulls very strongly.

A similar work by Anish Kapoor which I photographed in the Hirschorn Gallery in Washington.

I had had to pass Damien Hirst’s “Mother and Child Divided”, not so much a work of art as a work of abattoir.  It is a very clever idea – cutting a cow and a calf in half (hence the title), but the actuality is distinctly distasteful.  I didn’t like it in 1995, and I don’t like it now.

I did, and do, like Rachel Whiteread, who won in 1993.  She creates solid objects out of space, and was illustrated by her 1994 work “House”.  (I have just spent two hours searching through old negatives for some pictures of House; rather strange, sifting through thirty years of negatives.  I couldn’t find them, which is incredibly irritating; I know I took several, the first pictures I took on a large format camera.  Instead, here is a link to a picture of House on Flickr, taken by Dressed In Yellow.)  I really like Whiteread’s work – she uses objects as moulds – in House, it was a house about to be demolished.  The sculpture left when the object is taken away – the house was taken down around the solid space – and they have an eery quality: you know what your seeing, but it is a positive image of the space.  Very strange, and I think rather beautiful.

There was a lot of video work, and I was reminded how much I dislike video art.  Usually I just don’t get it.  There were pieces by Gillian Wearing, Douglas Gordon and others.  The Wearing piece was frankly wearing: a video of police officers standing or sitting in rows; for an hour.  I looked at it for perhaps two minutes, perhaps a little more; I certainly wasn’t going to sit there for an hour.  Nothing happened.  I didn’t think I was looking at great art.  I did wonder why the police were sitting there.  Should they have been doing something a little bit more productive?  Or perhaps they weren’t policemen and women at all.  But ultimately, I felt like saying “so what?”

There was an exception – the second exception to my dislike of video art in the week (after k r buxey at the Seduced exhibition, the only thing I found worth looking at there).  Steve McQueen’s (no, not that one) short film Deadpan I thought was simply brilliant; I sat and watched it three or four times (unlike Wearing piece, this was only four minutes long).  It was wonderful – a take on a scene from a Buster Keaton movie where a house falls down around the actor.  In Deadpan, McQueen recreates the scene, shooting it from several different angles; each time I saw it, I was impressed by the tension (when will the house fall? what will I see?): each angle different, sometimes focusing tightly on McQueen’s eyes (he flinches briefly as the wall passes him), or his feet, or the window through which his body passes (whilst motionless).  It was captivating.  I think the guy is a genius.

One of the pieces I remembered before and thought “why?!” was Martin Creed’s conceptual piece.  I can’t remember what it was called.  Basically, the gallery lights had been wired to a random timer: the lights go on, the lights go off.  (I couldn’t help remembering an episode of the Simpsons, when Homer opens and closes the fridge door, trying to catch the fridge in the dark.)  An entertaining idea, but where is the art?  I wandered into the gallery and thought they had a faulty power supply – it was only when I realised there was nothing in the gallery that I remembered Creed’s piece.  It left me in the dark.

There was an Anthony Gormley piece, Testing A World View – five casts of his body positioned around the room.  I had hoped they would have Field, one of the works for which he won the Turner – a powerful, rather scary installation of thousands of little clay statues filling out a room, staring up at you.  They did have a picture of Field, but that was all; the piece they did have left me rather cold, surprising since I would have said that Gormley was one of my favourite artists.  (Seeing The Angel of the North up close was wonderful; I must post about that.)

In the lobby, they had a Richard Long piece, painted straight onto the floor; they must have either got Long in to repaint it, or used someone else to do so (in which case, who’s the artist? Is it a copy of an original?).  I started to trace Long’s steps – to walk the length of the unbroken line – but I got hungry and stopped after a few steps, off to seek some food.

I found this a really interesting show; my views hadn’t changed much (the McQueen was the only work I hadn’t seen or only artist I didn’t know that I liked), and those artists I hadn’t liked I still didn’t like – a lot of the more conceptual stuff – the clever-clever Hirst, the obsessive Gilbert & George (which is which? who cares?).  But it was worth it to see the work by artists I love amongst the stuff I would happily pass by – and perhaps seeing works I know and love amongst the other stuff made them even more welcome.

Definitely not “Seduced”. November 2007.

We went to see the Barbican exhibition “Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now”.  Seduced is not an apt description: it left me completely cold. They must have worked really hard to make sex so boring.

It is hard to see how they did it; perhaps sticking pictures of sex in a gallery removes the attraction?  There was little here that was erotic: perhaps we have become so used to having sexual images available – on tv, in the movies, on the internet – that hanging them in a gallery removes the sex: all that was left was cold meat.  Perhaps it is because, for most people, sex is private: and sticking it on the walls of the gallery, a very public space, puts it in the wrong.

The show didn’t seem to have a purpose: it didn’t seem to know what it was trying to do.  There wasn’t sufficient interest in the mores of the times to put the older images into context; different cultures were displayed without a hook to drag one in.

Even artists whose work I like seemed to come off badly.  It was a big show, and it felt unfocused: it might have been more effective if it had been smaller, more concentrated, more thematic.

There was only one piece that seemed to move off the wall and into the real world: k r buxey’s videos.  The one I watched left everything to the imagination, pulling me into her world, powerfully.

But I expected more than just one piece in such a large show to interest me.

“Britain on Film.” July 2007.

I met my brother at Tate Britain; I actually wrote The Tate, because that is how I think of it.  In the main hall was Mark Wallinger’s entry for the Turner Prize, an installation based on the anti-war campaigners based in Parliament Sq.  It was curious – I agreed with the sentiments of banners and posters, but it seemed bereft of any creative spark.

We went to the photographic exhibition – Britain as captured on film.  It didn’t really grab me.  There were some interesting pictures individually, but the show as whole was too diffuse, too vague – it just didn’t hang together: there were too many photographers, too many topics, too broad an interest.  I wandered around, liking the pictures but disappointed with the whole.  There was some pretty neat software though, used to display albums – you could drag the photo to turn the page.  Nifty.

I was also appalled by the grammar on the various bits of blurb.  There were misplaced commas, verbs which didn’t agree with their subjects. It was just unprofessional.  I wanted to go along, scratching out the offending commas.  I must be turning into a grammar Nazi.

My brother and I spent a couple of hours walking through the picture halls.  There were so many photos.  Some of them seemed like scenes from our past – I expected to see myself in the corner of a picture, running through the street as a child or sweating at a gig.  But then a lot of the pictures seemed like a completely different world.

After a tasteless chocolate muffin and a coffee (how could anyone make a tasteless chocolate muffin? Where did they learn to remove the taste of chocolate?) we walked along the bank of the Thames, looking at the MI5 building and boats on the river.  We walked east; I was surprised to see Rodin’s Burghers of Calais on the grass outside the Houses of Parliament.  In Parliament Sq I stopped to photograph the peace camp.  Not surprisingly, it seemed much more vital, much more important than Wallinger’s art.  One of the protesters saw me waiting for the traffic to clear so I could take a photograph, and he turned so that I could read the signs hung around his body.  He waved as I lowered the camera and I gave him a thumbs up sign.

Antony Gormley at the Hayward.

I went to the Antony Gormley exhibition at the Hayward Gallery.  This was just wonderful.  Exciting, inventive; just superb.   We approached the exhibition from Embankment, cross the river again.  Suddenly, I became aware of the figures on the skyline: stationary, hanging there.  Once we’d seen one, we started to look for others, scanning the buildings.  We could see several – some close, other barely visible.  As we crossed Hungerford Bridge, more came into view, perched high on the edges over the city.  I was expecting this – the statues had been in the press for ages (one lovely story – and I hope it is true – was that Gormley wanted to place one of his figures on the roof of the Ministry of Defence; they understandably turned down his request.  In the run up to the opening of the exhibition – when the papers were full of pictures of the statues scattered across the roofs of London, the Minister for Defence suddenly wanted to know why there wasn’t one on his roof, too.  His underlings apparently tried to get the Hayward to erect one on the MoD, but by then it was too late – all the sculptures were accounted for.)

This was Event Horizon, and it was a stunning piece of art.  The figures, modeled on Gormley himself (he seems to be his own favourite model), were eerily beautiful.  There was something sinister about them – as if they were part of a Dr Who plot – gazing endlessly over London.  Looking at them – looking for them – made one look at the city differently: they not only changed how you looked at the art, but how you looked at everything.

photographs of Event Horizon on FLickr

Much of the exhibition was like that.  Entering the Hayward, there is a towering sculpture like a fallen satellite.  And lo, it is called Space Station.  An extension of Gormley, created by scanning his body into a computer and cutting large boxes from sheets of steel,  this is massive, barely fitting into the space available, towering over the visitors looking at it.

(I wanted to take pictures of it, and asked the servitor if it was ok.  He said no.  So I didn’t.  [Edit] The Hayward’s website has only Flash animations.  Howeer, there are a lot of pictures on Flickr, and I have provided some links to some of those!)

Space Station is lit by a diffuse, stark white light: itself a work of art.  Blind Light is a cloud chamber, a large room created inside the gallery, full of light.  The water droplets catch the light, creating a solid white fog.  From a distance it appears luminescent.  Up closer, it is full of ghostly figures looming out of the fog as they approach the glass edges, they quickly disappearing.

Inside the cloud chamber, it is quite disorienting; it is very disturbing.  The fog is thick and bright, and uniform; you cannot see below your waist, and if you hold you hand out in front of you – and the need to do so is great, to avoid hitting other people – your arm disappears into the mist.  You can hear a lot, but there is so much light that you can see nothing.  You cannot see the floor to place your steps; you cannot see the ceiling.

The experience is the artwork: re-examining the way we look at things: our bodies, how we are present in the environment; the way people appear and disappear.

After a while, walking about, lost, it is quite frightening.  There are no anchors, nothing to orientate oneself.  The wall suddenly looms up; people appear – right in your face – and disappear as quickly.  I found it hard to breath (which is strange; I thought water vapour was meant to loosen the airways), and it would have been easy to panic.  The only way to find the door out is to head forward, and hit the glass wall; and then slowly follow it around, a hand keeping to the glass to stop one getting lost again.

link to a picture of Blind Light on Flickr, by sosij

Walking down to the next gallery, we passed hanging figures – Gormley again – swinging by the stairs.  Called Critical Mass – Gormley likes using scientific terms as names for his works of art (the first piece of his I remember seeing consisted of a large room at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the floor full of tiny little clay figurines, scarily staring up at you: a mockery of the emperor’s terracotta army, perhaps.  It was called Field); there were figures lying in corners of the gallery, as if they had been left there.  Others had been cut up and dissected.

Link to a picture of Field on Flickr, by Trois Tetes

Allotment consisted of 300 boxes, abstractions of people in Sweden: each box being the smallest volume that could contain the subject.  Gormley called them “rooms”.  This gallery was like a maze: one had to weave a path between the figures.  It felt like a graveyard, the “rooms” standing a three dimensional stones.

Upstairs – past the hanging figures again, swinging gently in the breeze – was a room full of sculptures made from a grid of wire.  Apparently based on fractals extruded from forms of Gormley’s body (see – fractals: he does like his popular science), these were large, abstract pieces each containing a body at their centre.  They hung from the ceiling, and gradually rotated as people walked by, disturbing them.  (The pieces throughout the exhibition seemed very tactile; but of course we weren’t allowed to touch, which was a pity; and which a lot of visitors ignored.  It was very hard to resist.)  The bodies within the frames were contorted and misplaced – as if caught falling through the air (several pieces in the exhibition reminded me of photographs of people falling from the World Trade Center; this may well have been me rather than Gormley – but falling bodies did seem to be a theme); some of them were curled in foetal position, as if the wire around them was the womb.

The outdoor terraces of the Hayward were open as part of Event Horizon.  Some of the statues could be seen comparatively close, others barely visible on the horizon.  It was even more impressive high up, on a similar level to the statues.  There are three terraces, allowing one to look at the art – and the skyline – from three different perspectives.  A handful of the statues – three or four of the thirty-odd – were placed on ground level, were they blended with the pedestrians walking past them.

There were a couple of pieces we didn’t get to see: they were more internal rooms, and there were long queues to get in.  But you could also look in from outside, through tubes piercing the walls.  It was like looking through a kaleidoscope – interrupted by people walking past and cutting off the light.

The whole exhibition was magical, but there were dark overtones, too.  It was quite special.

Off the Wall. May 2007.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has an exhibition of installations on at the moment (until May 28) called Off the Wall – they all sit on the floor.

It is a mixed show.  I liked four pieces, and really disliked three.

Here are some pictures of the four I liked!

Zobop.  Jim Lambie.

I saw this first in Washington, but it works much better here – there is an enclosed space.  It is quite hypnotic, and rather beautiful.

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Spirit Collection: Hippocrates.  Christine Borland.

I loved this: glass jars hanging from the ceiling, containing bleached leaves and a liquid.    I don’t know whether the liquid was a solvent to bleach the leaves – there was no colour in the liquid, so it is unlikely.  It was very serene, and captivating.

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David Mach.

I have no idea what this piece is called.  I really like David Mach’s work, and have done since I first came across it – when he filled rooms with piles of newspaper pouring through the windows and and fireplaces og the Gallery of Modern Art (and that was in 1982, I think!).  he has done a lot of outdoor sculpture, too – there is a set of three heads on the M8 which are rather wonderful.

This piece comprised of whisky bottles – some filled to create the shape of a man; or the saltire, perhaps.

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The Lamp of Sacrifice, 286 Places of Worship, Edinburgh 2004.  Nathan Coley.

Coley has been nominated for the Turner prize, with a similar piece to this: I think he specialises in making models of churches.  Apparently, this piece includes a model of every place of worship in Edinburgh in 2004 – he went through the Yellow Pages to identify them all.  I could recognise some of them.  I thought this was great fun – there is a wonderful simplicity about it.

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Spencer Finch. April 2007.

For much of the last month or so, I have been sorting through stuff; all sorts of stuff.  The accumulated detritus of more than twenty years.  I have made lots of very pleasant rediscoveries: I have spent this afternoon doing something I been intending to do for more than twenty years.  (Twenty two, if you’re being precise; but I am going to write about that separately, some time.)

One of the things I came across was a pamphlet from an exhibition by Spencer Finch, which was held at the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh in 1995.  (See – this really is like personal archaeology.)  The show made a great impression on me.

The exhibition was all about colour; but more, about colour and memory.  At first, I didn’t get it; I mean, I really didn’t get it: I thought it was lousy, pointless art, and it didn’t mean anything to me.

There were three or four different pieces.  The worst first impression was made by a piece called Trying To Remember The Color Of Jackie Kennedy’s Pillbox Hat.  It consisted of a great many small squares of pink.  Lots of pink, with subtle – very subtle – variations in shade and intensity between them.  (The pamphlet has only three squares; but I remember a whole wall full of pink squares.  I could be wrong: my memory could be deceiving me.  And I rather like the idea of misremembering an artwork concerned with colour and memory.)

When I looked at this, all I saw was squares of pink, like a Dulux catalogue.  I didn’t even like the pink.

The woman overseeing the exhibition asked what I thought of the piece, and I told her.  She started to explain it to me, and we got into a discussion.  She explained what was behind the work, the concept perhaps.  And as she told me about it, it began to make sense; the ideas were interesting, and intriguing, and grabbed me with an intensity.

What she told me was this.  On the day of John F. Kennedy’s assignation, his wife Jackie was wearing a pink outfit.  She was photographed in this out, she appeared on TV in this outfit: a pink suit, and a pink pillbox hat.  These pictures were sent all over the world, as she scrambled to her dying husband.

All the pictures were in black and white.

So although her clothes were described – she was a superstar, after all – and although the pictures were seen all over the world, no one actually saw the pink of the hat.  For most people – for almost the whole world – it only existed in our imaginations.  (Until the exhibition, it hadn’t existed in mine: until I saw the show, I didn’t know she’d been wearing pink.)

The piece was all about imagining the colour, trying capture the memory – one of those events that people know where they were when they heard the news.  (It is my earliest memory – at least, the earliest I can place a date on; I was three and a half.)

Knowing the story, having it explained to me, the piece made sense.  And I saw a real beauty in it – quite a change around considering I had hated it five minutes before.

I don’t think it is “good” art – I don’t think that I should need to know the story to understand a work of art.  But I also think the ideas encompassed within it are brilliant.

Trying to remember the color of Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hat

Another piece was similar: the colour of the blue of the sky as the Challenger space shuttle exploded.  That was recorded in colour; maybe because of that, it didn’t resonate with me so much.

The last piece I remember I thought was brilliant from the outset.  It is a sketch map of Edinburgh, drawn by Finch, and with notes as to the colours he remembered as he drew it.  It was witty, it was about my favourite city, and it was about my favourite places.

Curiously, he drew the map wrong – in the same way that I always draw sketch maps of Edinburgh wrong.  He has north at the bottom, where one would normally expect south to be.  This is how I often draw Edinburgh.  I don’t know why Finch drew Edinburgh this way – except that this must be how he remembered it.  I think I draw it this way because I have mostly lived in the north, at the bottom of a long, steep hill – both as a student and for most of the last thirteen years.  Going towards the centre of the town, I would walk up the hill – up to the top.  And that is how I perceive the city: south at the top of the hill; at the top of the paper.

Spencer Finch - Edinburgh Map

Postscript.  I deliberately didn’t Google “spencer finch” before I posted this, because I wanted it to be about my memory.  I have now Googled him.  There are a whole load of images out there – on Google images.  And he has a website, natch – http://www.spencerfinch.com. I hadn’t heard of him before the exhibition, or since.  But that probably says more about me than him!

Should Mr Finch or his estate or publisher read this and object to the images of his work displayed here, I’ll remove them.  But I’d rather not!

Harry Benson.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see an exhibition of photographs by Harry Benson, a photo-journalist who has worked extensively since the 1960s.  You may not know his name, but he has taken some iconic photographs.  He worked with the Beatles in the sixties, travelling to the States with them on their first tour; he stayed on went they returned to the UK.

The pictures on show spanned the decades of Benson’s work, and also his styles.  He started off working in Scotland, and moved to London before moving to the States.  His earlier work was unstaged, and of ordinary people: football crowds, children playing in the street.  He then progressed to events and stars – the Beatles, concerts, politicians (including the Klu Klux Klan). 

He was with Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1968, and the exhibition had the enlarged contact sheet from that evening, a chilling document that moved from politcal rally through to staff sitting numb with horror; he took pictures of Kennedy seconds after he was shot, and of his wife – she hit out at Benson as he stood and photographed; it is a very moving image.

As he grew with prominence, people came to Benson – he no longer had to chase the picture.  These staged pictures had much less impact for me – we were seeing what the famous wanted to show.  Benson had to get them to show more of themselves – there was a famous picture of Ronald Reagan and his wife, dancing (apparently Reagan’s aides wanted to stop that one) – but generally these pictures were more formal, taken with more time and thought rather than a split second decision.

With time he moved from black and white to colour, he his pictures lost impact that way, too.  Since this co-incided with his move to more formal, controlled studio conditions, so it is hard to keep these two factors separate.  The earlier black and white prints had more power, though.

(Harry Benson’s pictures in Google image search.)

This was brought back to me when I saw the exhibition for the Deloitte photographic portrait competition at the National Portrait Gallery this week.  Most of the pictures were in colour; but it was the few black and white portraits that really worked for me.  The coloured prints looked normal; the black and white ones looked special.

Few of the prints were close ups of the face, but these worked best for me: whilst the others showed the sitter in their environment, it didn’t necessarily add to my understanding of them: instead they seemed floating outside, lost in the background.

I generally disagreed with the judges choice of winners: those weren’t my favourites in the show at all.  It is hard to say why I liked those that I did – there was little that united them – but they added something to the sitter, bringing out what was interesting, grabbing my attention.

(Here is the exhibition website – but it only has a couple of the pictures I really liked: here! – and here!.  Neither of these are in black and white…)

At the National Gallery was an exhibition of pictures by Tim Gardner.  Based on photographs, these were actually watercolours, but they were painted so that they looked like photographs.  They were hyper-realist: I had to look really hard to see that they were actually paintings.  I will admit this doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me – why paint a painting to look like a photograph.  They were very beautiful pictures – landscapes and informal portraits from the States – but I don’t know what painting them like that added to the original photos.  It seems like a lot of work for no real return.