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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Blogging at the Tate (from 4 September)

More views of - or after - Cambridge Film Festival 2011
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

23 November

To give this another home, I have lifted the content of my - long! - posting (but the Tate Blog is also worth seeing for the views of some the exhibits):

I do not know whether those who purchase a ticket on the day are allowed re-entry (and I have heard people in the past talking about ‘doing a show’ in 90 minutes because they have an art-history background), but I tend to find these Tate Modern exhibitions quite demanding, because they are so extensive and there is often almost too much to look at.

(I have seen some comments about the ticket-price: maybe the exhibitions will seem expensive if, apart from the availability of toilets (and they are not very obvious), one understands that the only time to look around is the two or three hours before needing lunch or dinner.)

If not, this is where Tate membership is a real benefit, because I am free to go off to have a coffee or something to eat, if I am getting fatigued and realize that I am no longer taking in what I am trying to look at. I can then go back into the exhibition once or twice more, or even leave the rest of it until another day.

However, in this case, apart from the Barcelona series – which I left to the end and only had time to spend a few seconds in front of each print – there was no one group of exhibits that represented a very significant amount of time needed to look at it properly. (I would say that the display-cases in the Gauguin show represent the other extreme.) Room 1 had been seen on another day, but I managed to look around yesterday in the five hours until 10.00 p.m. that I had available.

That, too, is a benefit of Friday and Saturday evenings, with the gallery thinning out towards closing time. Others have commented on the two rooms with two triptychs each (Rooms 10 and 12, although the fireworks triptych was displayed differently, and well), but it was only later that one could get a clear view of all three canvases, and I deliberately waited until past 9.30 p.m. to view them.

They were stunning, both pairs, and I will hope to see them again when the gallery is quiet, but I wondered whether they really needed a little more space to themselves, and the fact that they were back to back meant that a viewer standing away to take in one triptych as a whole, as I did, would inevitably (if there had been anyone there then) have been in the way of anyone wanting to see the other.

With an artist as prolific as Miró (and I had not been aware that he was working at his death until I saw the video, which was not in its normal place at the exit), the exhibition was inevitably selective, but it was a very good selection, not least for the Constellations series, and, again, the triptychs.

That said, including the burnt pictures but not having footage from the video that I saw displayed on a screen in Room 11, which could have showed the artist burning a canvas (and even stepping on it and leaving red footprints) was, I believe, a mistake: with the video where it is, not everyone would see it, and I consider it as of much more interpretative value to have something relevant to the creation of a series of works in the place where they are being shown.

Above all, I now appreciate that Miró related to series (and, although he is quoted as saying that two and two do not make four, he had some sort of personal mathematics that related one item in a series to the next), and also to sequence, so it was also unfortunate that the captioning in Room 7 did not more clearly draw attention to his request for the Constellations to be displayed in order. They were displayed in order, but the casual viewer would not obviously have known where to start, or (except from the date on the caption to each painting) that they were in any definite order.

Which takes me to my final few observations about the exhibition and how it was curated:

1. Unless I am much mistaken and misunderstood the footage, the curators of the exhibition themselves (shown, on the video, visiting Miró’s studios, both of which he had used since 1959) confused the studios, and seemed to be saying that works created in one were the product of the other.

In any event, it would again have been helpful to understand the artist’s working life to have had the history and views of the studios, and his way of working, set out in the gallery (not just references to them in the captions).

2. Inevitably, the captions to the paintings (as well as those for each room) tease out meanings, and make suggestions as to how work and life relate: the ones in this exhibition were generally suitably tentative, but, after a while, the proposition introduced by ‘maybe’ kept eliciting my quiet retort ‘who says so?’. (What evidence is there for what the ladder imagery mean, I want to ask.)

On this level, not least when the video footage of Miró gave a very different impression of the genesis of the burnt canvases, and set his producing them in a different context, I sometimes felt misled by what was being suggested as to his motivation or meaning (Room 11, for example).

3. Finally, the fact that the chronology of his life was (as it usually is) outside the exhibition, but was essential reading to flesh out one’s understanding of Spain and its history did not help. (I do not even recall a map of Spain for that matter, showing where Mont-roig and other significant places are, and not everyone has yet visited Barcelona.)

This was a particular problem where such help was most needed: I was being asked to understand the paintings from 1931 onwards against the background of what was happening, but I could not tell from what was presented to me when Franco actually gained power, or when the Spanish Civil War began and (how it) ended.

Details of that war as a whole, including German involvement and the anti-fascist movement, seemed to have been assumed to be common knowledge, which I doubt is true: information and images would have informed viewing the paintings greatly. The Phoney War was also referred to, but we were not even told (it was the anniversary on my visit) that Britain (and France) declared war on 3 September, or when Germany invaded France and The Low Countries.

Unfortunately, I end up thinking that I will have to look out texts on the civil war myself to understand better the times in which Miró was painting.

Anthony Davis

Copyright Belston Night Works 2011

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