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Showing posts with label Kurt Schwitters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kurt Schwitters. Show all posts

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Richard Hamilton at Tate Modern

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

25 May

This exhibition at Tate Modern (@Tate) is about to finish (on Monday 26 May).

Its curation is almost as curious sometimes as some of the objects (or their juxtaposition) in the recreated exhibition, which Hamilton organized for The Festival of Britain in 1951, Growth and Form (in Room 1) :

Perhaps, somewhere, there is a room-guide equivalent to the text that appears, in the free exhibition booklet, to describe Room 1 and 2, but, if so, it is well hidden* - the appearance is of walking into Growth and Form with nothing to explain what it or its relevance are. It is good to show these things (as was also done with other exhibitions, a few months back, at the ICA (@ICA)), but there needs to be an introduction. A small ante-room with a video-loop, perhaps (if such footage exists) of Hamilton talking about the show, might have helped place it for visitors.

In any case, though Hamilton may have been (since he was nothing if not someone who observed carefully) ahead of his time in intuiting forms of patterns of growth in - to name but a few - plant, crystalline and shell development, structure and growth that have since been linked to fractals or The Fibonacci Series, this may not be the best place to start with him, nor may it be Variations on the theme of Reaper (1949) (in Room 2) (please see below).

For, in the choice of exhibits, display and interpretational material, one simple question seems not to have been asked (or, if so, the answer not carefully enough considered) :

Who is this Hamilton retrospective for ?

Is it something that, as with the big Damien Hirst show, people could wander into and around, such as they did past and even through his severed cow and calf, and make of it what the immediacy of the canvases, objects and videos conveyed*** ? Or, if people are to be able to value Hamilton's contributions to the British art scene and beyond, do they need a little more guidance (which the Hamiltonian enthusiast - keen to see some works live, but with a greater initial idea of these things - could ignore, if he or she wished (as could any level of visitor in between)) ?

In relation to Reaper, it is not as if we are being chronological, since it pre-dates Growth and Form by two years, but then, as with many recent Tate shows, we do generally adopt that approach by period : in the meantime, after the 1951, we have confronted the visitor with fifteen etchings of a reaping-machine, from all sorts of angles, and with varying techniques and levels of detail.

In this connection, the following point, which is made in the Introduction, would be more aptly drawn to the visitor's attention here :

He often produced several versions of a particular work rather than a single 'finished' piece [this suggests, however, that the versions have the status of sketches or maquettes, rather than being complete in themselves], and throughout his career explored new printmaking methods and digital techniques.

However, as the Introduction has been placed on the wall, the assumption is that the visitor has read and digested it, or seen it the booklet presented at the door, by the time that Room 2 is being viewed... Hate it also as a kiddies' version as one might, what is often said about Cubism is arguably as relevant here, e.g. that there is a response to Einstein on relativity and / or Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle*** in giving us multiple views of a face - or a reaper.

As to this choice of exhibit, maybe there is merit in something produced whilst Hamilton was still at the Slade, maybe not (would one normally go as far back as art college ?), but there seem to be no obvious answers to the following questions in choosing or presenting the piece :

Where does Reaper fit into an account of Hamilton's entire work ?

How does the visitor know that it has that relevance ?

One may hate the description of Hamilton as 'the father of Pop Art' (not least as, in connection with the Bridget Riley exhibition in 2003, Tate was keen to put her in a different relation to art history than that of a pioneering exponent of Op Art), but one is in danger with coming out of this show not knowing (though Room 5 says quite a bit about Pop Art - at this stage) :

* What Hamilton did as an artist

* What his importance was to other artists or the art world

* His significance to appreciating Marcel Duchamp - though some explanation seems to be here, in (the booklet for) Room 8 - and, more importantly, who Duchamp was and what it was that Hamilton valued

* Likewise Kurt Schwitters and the Merzbarn ?

* Why one has seen five or six times the image mainly known as Swingeing London 67 [this one is (and owned by Tate Modern) - what do the four or five others add to seeing it ?

The Tate has not only long owned Hamilton’s reconstruction of what is often, in brief, referred to as Duchamp’s Large Glass (properly called La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (1915–1923), but has for many years had it on display at Tate Modern without (or without adequately – except here) explaining that this is not Duchamp’s original work***, which is too fragile to move (and in Philadelphia). Here, at last, matters are a little less unclear, but does one get much notion of the significance of what Duchamp had been working on between 1915 and 1923 through what is written in the room-note and shown in display-cabinets ?

In other words, who would know what Hamilton was doing in reconstructing this work – and why – who did not know already ? And what does the exhibition do to explain Hamilton’s involvement with the publication The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (Arts Council of Great Britain, 1966), what it is and why it was published ? Yes, there are two copies, one displaying the green cover, the other the title-page, but nothing other than the sketchiness of the room-note to convey the answers to these questions to the visitor (the Tate web-site, linked to here, is a different matter altogether) :

1915 – 1923 / Reconstructed 1965 – 1966 / Lower panel re-made 1985

The glaringly unstated sub-text of all this is that not only did Hamilton curate a Duchamp show for Tate, but went about reconstructing the work for it : maybe all this is there, if one buys the book of the exhibition, but what, then, is the point of the exhibition itself, if not to explain the exhibits and what significance they have qua exhibits… ?

Work in progress - more to come...


* The last of these, too, were well hidden - which may be shorthand for saying that they had been put somewhere unideal, too. In this show, the Introduction did, as one checked, appear on the far side of Room 1 (Growth and Form), actually on one wall of Room 2 - with the room-guide for both Rooms on the wall where one went into Room 3...

** The spirit of Heisenberg is tacitly evoked later on (Room 7), with exposures of figures on a beach that have been enlarged over and over, and achieving greater proximity only at the cost of precisely the detail sought.

*** However, Duchamp did inscribe Hamilton’s reconstruction, as if it is the equivalent of the original. Here is what the Tate's web-page for the work much more usefully tells us :

The reconstruction took exactly a year to make. When Marcel Duchamp came to London for the opening of his exhibition, he agreed to sign it and inscribed it on the back 'Richard Hamilton | pour copie conforme | Marcel Duchamp | 1965'.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

'Cutting out' blogging

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

14 August

Bogus Derivations 'r' Us ?

In other words, the Internet being what it is (a dustbin with ~0.005 % reliable content), don't take seriously the etymologies that you read there, founded on the scholarship that led to The Hitler Diaries (and that fairly amusing film Schtonk ! (1992))...

So we are told that blog is short for web-log / weblog, but - I have to ask - who in the heck, other than some would-be Captain Kirk, would call such a thing such a thing ?

Captain's log, Stardate 45 point 78 point 69 B theta minus Cosine ABC

It's less whether we can establish that there is any truth in the assertion (which, of course - for a suitable Jim-Rockford-type daily rate plus expenses - one could look into) than choosing to swallow it. For me, I don't, because it sounds like a crap guess dressed up as Fact :

To my ear, blog sounds far more like the sound that a woodpecker sort of bird might make*, which - in its typical formulation - is what blogging is, the knock knock knock of sense out of our heads by the endless repetition of tired arguments, debateable points of view, and assorted nonsense that supposedly sounds good just for the saying.

Going back to Hitler and 'that whole endorsement thing' (as some would style it), possibly it is no more schocking than Ossian / Macpherson (in 1760), or what Wikipedia® calls the free-wheeling translations by Edward FitzGerald (I like that description) in the following century, but plus ça change is a bit of a cop-out, is it not ?

Anyway, my guns and pump are primed, so Anything could happen - all in the Best Possible Taste, Cupid !

As they say, Watch this space...


* I need to check, in that facsimile of what T. S. Eliot really wrote (before Ezra Pound got his hands/ pen on it - no wonder Eliot states / quotes 'For Ezra Pound : Il miglior fabbro' at the front (in 1925) !), whether that bird-noise was notated in 'The Waste Land'.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Lessons from Merz

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2012
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

8 April

On my fourth visit to the Kurt Schwitters exhibition at Tate Britain (Schwitters in Britain), I shall probably conclude having looked at everything, and might even manage some time with the ‘Kurt-inspired’ installations by Laure Prouvost and Adam Chodzko.

Four visits ? Yes, because, unlike those of the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at (Tate) Modern (Lichtenstein : A Retrospective) these works, in my experience, need time to be appreciated, and also space. As a Member of Tate, I have my admission free and at will, without the need for a ticket, and I can accordingly pace my viewing. (With the Arshile Gorky exhibition at Modern, I misjudged a little, and needed to travel down for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of its closing weekend.)

What I have learnt (so far) is :

(1) One can have no appreciation of the pieces in Room 5 (Hand-held sculptures) from photographic images (I have seen such)

(2) In fact, without having them endlessly rotate on a turntable (not least because some are fragile, or, maybe, unstable), I believe that filming some of the works revolving would have benefited the typical visitor’s appreciation of, for example, Chicken and Egg, Egg and Chicken, Untitled (The All-Embracing Sculpture) and Speed (all dates to come)

(3) There are various reasons, some to do with the effect of shadow on Schwitters’ constructions (both on canvas and paper, and these free-standing ones), and others to the fact that he has, for example, vividly painted planes of Chicken and Egg, Egg and Chicken that are not – almost necessarily with a three-dimensional object (although there is more to it than that) – visible at all times

(4) In fact, the moving image as an interpretive element is under-represented in the show (whereas the installations both use film) – we do not, I assume, have footage of Schwitters reciting the Ursonate or any other of his poems, stories, etc., which is why we have the well-known three-by-three grid of photographs of him performing the former (plus audio)

(5) I have not yet done more than pass through Prouvost and Chodzko’s parts of the exhibition, but it does beg the question why their work, even if it is a response to his, is part of the show about Schwitters – how interesting are commissions from 2011, as against, say, some reactions in artwork that are contemporaneous to his time in Britain (seven years, after all), or even reporting Hirst’s inspiration to go to art college because of Schwitters’ collages ?

(6) What we do have, which I suggest is more of archive interest, are the photographs of the Merz Barn that were taken in situ by the team led by Richard Hamilton, and we have an almost excessively full chronology* of the failure to save the remains of the Merzbau, and of the near-failure to preserve the Merz Barn, both before and after the Hamiltonian survey

(7) I criticize the inclusion of a film-loop of those photos for several reasons : (a) they include rulers whose scale is never made explicit, (b) it is also not clear what the – often enough – poor-quality images (usually too dark) depict, because there is no over-arching shot of that wall of the Merz Barn, except in the course of the loop (which, of course, one cannot consult), and (c) a large-scale quality image of the wall as it can now be seen in Newcastle-upon-Tyne would show far more (or one could even have had a touch-sensitive one that would project a choice of images, being various levels of close-up or one of the ones from the survey)

(8) There are two large plaster pieces (a little like columns, as displayed, but resembling shapely newel-posts, or legs), which, I understand, were found in the Merz Barn, and which are ‘displayed’ in oblong Perspex boxes, placed against the wall, so that one side is invisible – unlike the four Perspex cubes that contain the hand-held sculptures, one cannot even walk all around them, and so film of them being either rotated or circled would give more sense of their curves, their construction, and their continuity with the smaller pieces

(9) But enough of all these observations for how the Schwitters show could have been better or different, because so many visitors (typically for a gallery) are doing themselves no favours by appreciating the works on canvas, wood, cardboard or paper without standing back from them

For I believe that Schwitters used the bus-tickets, say, or newspaper clippings, pieces of packaging, corrugated card or paper, gauze or net purely for their visual effect – if, after we have seen a shape mutedly through a piece of net, we will not see it close to, and we will not see the composition by knowing that that part of it is paper, that part oil-paint on the paper, that part a piece of stone adhered to the surface

(10) The exhibition contains some examples of his use of pointillist marks in landscape and abstract work, but, again, we do not get the best from Seurat by being so close that we see what the painting is made of, but not how the technique is meant to work and be viewed – same with painters such as Sisley or Pissarro

(11) As to the materials that Schwitters used that derive from reproductions of works in national collections, there are some cases (Room 3 contains some) where one is quite clearly meant to see that he is transforming or subverting a representation of an identifiable original, which is entirely consistent with the assertion that he made in 1919 :

The word Merz denotes essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials

(12) Schwitters goes on to make his meaning quite plain – and I like it that he talks, along with paint, about things as if there is a harmonious democratization :

A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint

(13) For this reason, I reject the curatorial interpretation put on his use of a copy of G. F. Watt’s Hope in c. 63 old picture 1946 :

The inclusion of an advertisement for Dr Scholl’s Foot Comfort Service brings the lofty symbolism of the original painting, positioned upside-down and overlaid with scraps of paper so that it is barely recognizable, down to earth

Well, if Watt’s painting is inverted and so overlaid maybe it is not meant to be recognizable, and could there, therefore, not be any ‘bringing down’ except in the recognition of a student of art history ? As to the advert, I see no greater significance in the wording than in that of many a scrap used in other collages (‘Merz’ itself is an appropriated fragment, after all) :

The person who looks at a bus-ticket in one and ponders its provenance might as well be in London Transport Museum as the Tate, because I believe that Schwitters’ eye is good, a self-reinforcing belief, because I stand back from his paintings, find a harmony in them, and that, if I put my thumb up to remove a detail, the painting is no longer balanced – it is interesting to get close and see how he achieved it, but just doing so is mistaking means and end

All in all, although some things could have been done differently, I am glad to have had this exhibition to visit, and, when I am not hearing inane comments on Schwitters or his art from other visitors (which makes me run a mile), or avoiding their proceeding to a painting that had looked ‘free’, or even their deciding to stand in my way, I can fondly hope that people have the chance to get to know his work better.

Not everything works as effectively as the select few that really do sing, but almost all have something to say, and it is a joy to become aware of his works of portraiture, landscape, and – in the flesh – sculpture.

Viva Kurt !


* I refuse to say ‘time-line’.