Category Archives: Art

Social Distancing with Andy Warhol – Tate Modern

Ladies and Gentlemen - Andy Warhol

The Tate Modern’s Andy Warhol exhibition was only open for a short time before the Covid pandemic forced the gallery’s closure for five months. Reopened again recently and extended until November, attendance is now a well-managed if cautious experience as the Tate responds to social distancing and safety guidelines that reduces visitor traffic and encourages face-coverings in all areas of the building. For those who have also visited the free-to-access collections at the reopened National Gallery, Wallace Collection, Tate Britain and others, there is much to compare and contrast in their approaches, and while 5 months ago wearing a mask in a gallery may have implied you were mid-heist, more space in previously over-crowded exhibitions is a welcome development.

One of the major considerations affecting the production and display of artistic objects in the last few years has been an increased engagement with the socio-political (and sometimes even harmful) context in which culture is created. The open discussion of these experiences was fairly new to television, film, theatre and dance where the exposure of high-profile predators led to resignations and formal charges that we hope will result in new ways of working to safeguard and protect members of cast and crew. But it resulted in a new, and as yet unresolved conversation, about the value of pre-existing output. Where do we draw the line between the cultural artifact and the separate-but-related life of its creator; how much room should we give to art shaped by the values and influences of the period in which it was created if attitudes, language and behaviours were quite different to our own and can art ever be separated from the artist?

Consciously or not, the creation and consumption of art is a political act, filled with the nuances of time, place, gender, race and numerous other characteristics that shape the circumstances in which it is generated and shared. This is something that the Art industry has had longer to grapple with, with conversations taking place over a number of years as galleries feel an increasing responsibility to contextualise items on display with the less salubrious and sometimes troubling biography of the creator. Notably in Two Temple Place’s exhibition Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion in 2018, the sculptor Eric Gill came under particular scrutiny for his work showing a pubescent girl known to be his daughter. The object was accompanied by a description that indicated his unhealthy relationship with her, one that affected and changed your opinion on the piece itself, a skilled example of statuary muddied by the environment of its creation.

None of this is surely relevant to the Pop Art images of celebrities and politicians that Warhol’s work reproduced? But room nine in the Tate Modern’s exhibition is the place to suddenly ponder these questions as the viewer is confronted by a series on Drag Queens and trans women entitled Ladies and Gentlemen focusing on Black and Latinx communities. It throws everything else you have seen into sharp relief. Displayed for the first time in 30 years, this is beautiful work – arguably some of the best pieces Warhol made – full of life, colour and drama in which the vibrancy and energy of the subjects shine through. Yet the Tate is at pains to point out that aside from a nominal fee, little is known about the sitters lives, nor were they able to control or influence the distribution of the resulting images, issues that apply to lots of models down the centuries.

Birmingham Race Riot by Andy WarholBut in highlighting the transactional nature of this collaboration in which Warhol procured subjects he didn’t know and didn’t record it leaves us with (as the Tate exhibition notes explain) ‘questions about the ethics of the series’ that speak to our current concerns with trans discrimination and rights. Although a commissioned collection, Warhol was clearly drawn to the fascinating lives, personalities and experiences of his subjects, the vivid power of the paintings themselves are testament to that, but it is impossible to know how engaged he was in representing the sitters as they were and wanted to be seen, or indeed if the subjects then or later objected to the finished pictures.  And while not his intention, Warhol’s work now takes on an added political resonance asking the viewer to wonder about the ways in which whole communities are excised from history, the nature of identity and ultimately the independent male gaze in perceiving and relaying an experience he was not part of.

Casting back through the eight earlier rooms then becomes a more contemplative experience and you are constantly reminded that while art can stand apart from era it also exists both within the specific conditions under which it was created fed by the artists’ biography and social experience, but also, importantly, in the context in which it is viewed. Our relationship with the work is informed as much by our own influences and values as the creators, which continue to change over time as individuals revisiting work over a lifetime and as different viewers engaging with a piece across the decades or centuries.

All of this feeds nicely into the curators’ argument that Andy Warhol’s work became influential during a period of significant socio-political change, both shaping his art and being created as a direct response to it. Looking back to the 1960s, Pop is the third room in this chronologically arranged exhibition containing many of his most famous pieces, the ones that subsequently come to define our impression of his wider canon. It may seem strange, even counter-productive to offer up the Marilyns and Marlons so soon but the distorting effect that Warhol creates on his canvases is rendered in equal measure by your passage through the show, encouraging you to reflect further on these works in the light of later pieces.

So, as Warhol’s work looks at the commodification of image, repackaged as a sellable product and society’s shift towards indiscriminate consumption, the decaying effect of these activities becomes more sharply defined. Your eye is drawn to the colourful half of Marilyn Diptych (1962), although distorted and repackaged, the beaming glamour of her star power given eternity on Warhol’s canvas. Yet, created after her death, the faded black and white print of the other half suddenly seems more powerful, slowly erasing Marilyn the woman completely and this spectre of absence is notable in the room’s other pieces.

Marilyn Diptych by Andy WarholTwo shots of a masculine Brando fill half the canvas leaving the remainder blank and uncoloured, the spaced-out Elvises are vibrantly painted but the canyon between them feels noteworthy, while the images of Jacqueline Kennedy – strategically placed alongside supposed rival Monroe – cast her either side of the death of John F Kennedy, the grainy smile arriving in Dallas cut pointedly alongside the veiled widow at the funeral. The absence in this image feels as profound as the inferred inevitability of the assassination that Warhol’s composition implies.

But what really makes this room so reflective are the political newsreel images that candidly and deliberately sit alongside celebrities that note the violent underbelly and decomposition of American society. The astonishing replication of a women throwing herself from a tall building  and captured in mid-air (Death and Destruction) is hard to look at, as is the vicious taunting of black protesters during the Alabama race riots as an Alsatian strains at the leash. Warhol uses colour to reflect danger and drama in the moment while the large-scale images of convicted criminals directly opposite Brando makes a subtle connection between the worlds of Hollywood and organised crime. America was rotten, so while you look at the repetitive patterning of Coke bottles or soup cans, Marilyn’s lips or the lurid poppies, there is something uneasy and unstoppable about the way in which Warhol has loaded his work with a kind of destructive symbolism.

Later these messages become more overtly political as Warhol applies his screen-printing technique to images of world leaders and notable emblems, particularly those pertaining to Communism as the vividly painted image of Mao from the 1970s as well as the Hammer and Sickle series were developed in response to America’s closer relations with China. In the penultimate room, these become even more daring as a devilish rendering of Lenin in bright red dominates the Mortal Coil section from the 1980s and in the same room the Statue of Liberty has been layered with a lightly tinted camouflage pattern across the entire scene that subtly implies a warmongering nation hiding behind notions of freedom. But Warhol’s relationship to these works is harder to fathom, are they celebratory or concerned? Either way they suggest a decade-long fascination with the iconography of political leaders and ideologies.

Death and Disaster - Andy WarholThroughout the exhibition, there is a concurrent sense of Warhol both closing down and expanding as he became personally more cautious following his 1968 shooting and artistically more experimental. The confident film reel-styling of the Pop Art years led to an interest in film making and the music scene so the curators focus on magazines, books and record sleeves produced and designed by Warhol as well as large-scale prints of stars he socialised with through the Studio 54 network including Debbie Harry and Grace Jones. Exposures reveals a division between profitable employment and more innovative practices – much as the Tate Britain’s William Blake exhibition united the artists commensurate commercial printmaking business with his more fantastical personal pieces – placing work emerging from his hectic social life alongside Oxidation, an abstract bronze-effect piece created from urine-infused metallic paint that retains a corroded effect – there is nothing else like this in the show, and along with the famous faces and the expressive colour-filled pictures this is a side to Warhol’s work that could be better explored and explained.

As a socially-distanced gallery experience, Tate Modern have managed their extensive space well with separate queues and doors for the general collection, Warhol and McQueen exhibitions. Once inside,  apart from a couple of rooms with very limited spaces and the removal of the touchable pillows of inflated silver evident in the photography from March, the smaller number of visitors mean restrictions rarely impede your progress through this thoughtful show. There have been bigger and more comprehensive Warhol exhibitions in the UK but this one will certainly get you thinking how the meaning of art can change between creation and display.

Andy Warhol is at The Tate Modern until 15 November. Tickets are £22 and concession are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Art of Theatre Photography

Present Laugher by Manuel Harlan - Uncle Vanya by Johan Persson - Betrayal by Marc Brenner

Theatre photography is one of the most important ways to promote a new production and simultaneously one of the elements audiences – and probably most creatives – actively think least about. While the contributions of actors, directors, designers and more recently the technical crew to creating and embodying the visual concept of a show are increasingly understood and recognised within the industry, the role of the photographer is vastly underestimated. Search for ‘theatre photography’ and the results focus entirely on technical learning and tips but far less on the crucial role of the photographer in capturing the essence of a production. Yet, to the outside world, their images are the entry point into a show, brokering that relationship with potential audiences.

Production and rehearsal room photos are far more than window dressing and along with posters that increasingly use digital photography rather than graphics, they signal to potential theatregoers what this production has to say. They demonstrate how revivals have distinguished their approach from earlier productions and help new shows to compete in a crowded marketplace, where numerous alternatives vye for your attention and your money. A set of well chosen photographs can do far more than the critics and sometimes even the synopsis to entice an audience into the theatre – as a promotional tool, they are invaluable.The very best production shots can distil the work of the wider cast and crew into a series of storytelling images, bringing the show’s aesthetic as well as its tone, style and psychological approach meaningfully into view.

Yet, only a few photographers are able to truly capture the essence of a production, to encapsulate its quality and depth in a single shot and three photographers have dominated the professionalisation and art of stage imagery for some time – Johan Persson, Marc Brenner and Manuel Harlan. Their pictures make the transition into independent objects of art, acting only partly as a visual record of performance and instead largely exist as beautiful images in their own right. These photographers are particularly adept at recording that one defining image, the analysis of which reveals all you need to know about that particular show.

Johan Persson

Persson’s sought after work recently includes Ian Rickson’s productions of Rosmersholm in 2019 and Uncle Vanya (pictured above) at the beginning of 2020, both of which had a painterly set designed by Rae Smith. Persson’s ability to capture the particularly shades of those spaces, the combination of light and shadow in the visuals was particularly striking as forgotten corners of lived-in rooms were briefly illuminated by rays of sunlight from the natural world intruding into a once silent household. He is a photographer that often finds contradiction in an image as the emotional and the physical contend.

One of Persson’s finest images – an arguably one of the truly great theatre pictures – has re-emerged during lockdown thanks to the proliferation of online theatre performances. This image of Tom Hiddleston in the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus was printed on the back of tickets before the venue went paperless last year and was framed on their staircase. Memorable even six years on, this is electrifying photography, full of drama and evoking a particular moment within the show where the bloodied hero, victoriously returned from battle, enjoys a moment alone. Crucially as a single representation of this production it captures everything Director Josie Rourke wanted to say across its 2.5 hour running time.

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (by Johan Persson)

We see the intensity of this second and its fervent masculinity as the figure plastered in the blood of other men enjoys a moment of post-victory elation. But he is rendered human by the contrasting notes of vulnerability in the image, the painful wince caused by water on freshly drawn wounds, the physical cost of societal expectations of manly behaviour playing out across his body as he privately grapples with the mental and material cost of war, a cost he must tend to in this very private scene that sits between the lines of Shakepeare’s play. Watched through, Hiddleston’s characterisation visits every aspect of this character’s public and private face which is so forcibly and stunningly captured here in this single Persson image.

Contrast that with this photograph from the musical Follies, first staged at the National Theatre in 2017 when Persson took this show-defining photograph, one that eschews the big stars to reflect an obsession with the nostalgic and ethereal that were so bewitching in Dominic Cooke’s landmark interpretation. There is a dreamlike quality to the visuals created by Vicki Mortimer on stage that is rendered entirely in this single image, and while Coriolanus is about two realities – the military and the personal – colliding, Follies is entirely focused on unreality, on fantasy, the impressionability of memory and the despair of lives never lived.

Follies by Johan Persson (National Theatre)

Persson’s image has the same photographic quality as his shot  from Coriolanus but the ghostly image of historic chorus girls backlit against the crumbling facade of the music hall’s brickwork and the illuminated Weismann’s Follies sign, itself in disrepair, pinpoints the emotional confusion of Sally, Buddy, Ben and Phyllis as they travel back in time. The lingering regret of Follies, the glamour of youth and the memory of so much possibility lost is at the heart of Sondheim’s musical. Avoiding sentimentality, Persson’s single shot entirely sums-up a production in which these shadow-selves haunted and comforted the women they became, the Follies itself a now crumbling edifice to something now permanently adrift, a time, a life and a dream about to be crushed forever.

Marc Brenner

Brenner’s work has been just as emotive, a favourite at the Almeida, his photographs have captured moments of great intimacy and flair on stage where external political, socio-economic and military structures buffet the characters as forcibly as their inner lives. Brenner has developed a particularly fruitful relationship with Jamie Lloyd, recording all of his productions from the seedy excesses of 2016’s Faustus to the visual simplicity of the remarkable Pinter at the Pinter season, the emotional cavern of Betrayal (pictured above) and, most recently, the brooding linguistic energy of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Last summer, Brenner took this image at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre during Lloyd’s superb revival of Evita whose transfer to the Barbican this summer has been sadly postponed. Brenner’s long experience of Lloyd’s work instantly reveals all you need to know about this production. Gone are the elaborate 1980s costumes, the coiffured hairdos and elaborate sets and in their place is Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour’s fresh and unencumbered vision told in the Argentinian colours of white and blue, using the original purity of the lyrics and the music to tell the story of Eva Peron while bringing a new visual language to the experience of musical theatre.

Evita by Marc Brenner (Regent's Park Open Air Theatre)

In his blog, Brenner writes about the challenge of staging the images of this production, working with the parallel shapes created by Gilmour’s steps and responding to the changes to sunset times that daily affected lighting design across the entire run. As art, this image incorporates that technical knowledge, snapping the moment the light falls on the central female figure, framing her against the even rake of the staging and the almost symmetrically-posed dancers. But the depth in Brenner’s photograph encapsulates and reflects the layers of meaning in the story. Here is the simply dressed but nonetheless charismatic Eva Peron who uses her humble origins to climb the ladder of fame, building relationship with the working classes to sustain her position. The smoke effects speak to the frequency of protest and violence in the musical, as well as the almost goddess-like status that Evita achieved which bookends the show.

Evita’s relationship to Colonel Peron may be a political powerplay, but one of Brenner’s most beautiful creations is this image for Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke at the Almeida (where it was also printed on the back of tickets) which transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre. The performance reawakened interest in lesser-performed Tennessee Williams plays and became a captivating example of two people just missing one another. Famed for its rare stripped back approach, using musical tones to set the emotional beat and pace of the story, Brenner’s gorgeous picture, like Persson’s shot from Coriolanus, is one of the great examples of theatre photography as art in its own right, expressing the hopeless romanticism of the relationship between John and Alma through this one image.

Summer and Smoke by Marc Brenner (Almeida Theatre)

The soft pink/orange glow of the lighting sets a mood for this picture evoking the warm evening heat of the South that is so essential to tone and atmosphere in Williams’s most lyrical work. This highly romanticised scene as depicted by Brenner is a momentary fantasy between them but one tinged with regretful longing. John’s (Matthew Needham) direct gaze reflects his open personality while Alma’s (Patsy Ferran) slighty bowed head and closed eyes speak volumes about her process of internalisation in which this moment of physical intimacy warms and scares her – both hope for so much in this second but already understand it cannot end happily. It is an eloquent and dramatically layered shot, instantly transporting the viewer back to one of the most arresting productions of recent years.

Manuel Harlan

Understanding the same degrees of light and shade in an image, Manuel Harlan’s work, favoured by The Old Vic and the RSC, is incredibly evocative, often recording key moments of change or the thematic subtext of a play that helps the audience to understand the genesis of the production. This image from David Leveaux’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was not used in press releases or reviews, and was perhaps considered too oblique as a marketing tool showing neither of the production’s leads, Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. Yet, it is an extraordinarily atmospheric summary of a play that recasts two originally shadowy figures from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and gives them their comic due. What happens in this photography is particularly fascinating, recording in one sense the purposeful artificiality of Anna Fleischel’s staging choices – the roll of marbled paper that covers ceiling, walls and floor, the errant stepladder and the strategically positioned lighting – to create a studio feel, while at the same time offering a hint of these two characters overwhelmed by the vast emptiness of the world they inhabit and, the small part they play in Shakespeare’s construction of it.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Manuel Harlan (Old Vic)

As a piece of art, the illumination of the two protagonists captured in silhouette behind a gauzy curtain speaks to the notions of concealment and spying that are vital to both plays as well as their tangential role in the events at Elsinore. At the same time the hints of colour, a dash of orange on the rear wall and at the top of the curtain add a liveliness to what would almost be a solely black and white depiction of this world. It is a striking piece of photography, one that implies a purgatorial state in which Stoppard and Shakespeare have trapped their characters, not quite real but not entirely fictionalised either.

All too real was the dynamic verve of The Bridge’s immersive production of Julius Caesar staged in 2018 at the still relatively young playhouse by Nicholas Hytner, allowing members of the audience to act as the whipped-up mob crucial to the action in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. The immediacy of the production is reflected in this turning-point moment, photographed by Harlan, immediately following the death of Caesar in which the Conspirators begin to recognise the unforeseen dangers they have unleashed

Julius Caesar by Manuel Harlan (Bridge Theatre)

Harlan, like Persson with his shot of Coriolanus and Brenner in his image from Evita, has entirely caught a defining political and human moment in this picture which implicitly reveals the rest of the play. The artistic framing and use of perspective in this shot are vital, the Conspirators are foregrounded with their hands bathed in blood and purpose achieved, while the ruined corps of Caesar is raised above them, his gaping wounds soon to be referenced in Mark Antony’s famous speech both centralised and slightly out of focus. Yet, the confusion of Brutus, Cassius et al foretells the misdirection to come as they fail to sell their deed to the onlooking crowd, a fatal flaw in their plot which will cost them their lives. Harlan has entirely caught the energy of this room and the exact moment at which the game changes.

Selling prints may not be something theatres want to consider – although in the newly straightened times created by months of enforced lockdown it may generate some much needed revenue – but theatre photography is far more than a series of marketing images. The very best exponents of this art form, Persson, Brenner and Harlan, are able to locate and develop a shot that summarises the narrative and thematic substance of a show, incorporating the director, designer and actors’ vision. But they also move to a realm beyond the physical representation of theatre, these extraordinary images are objects of art, testament to the skill of photographers able to read, interpret and capture these defining moments.

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William Blake – Tate Britain

 

The Ancient of Days, William Blake

Genius or lunatic, William Blake was clearly a troubled man. You only need to look at his collection of despairing figures, prostrate bodies and muscular beasts painted in vivid reds and mournful blues clutching mercilessly at their prey to know that this was an artist channeling his demons, trying to make sense of the visions he experienced in a tumultuous period of British history. But Blake is so much more than that; poet, printmaker and artistic visionary, Tate Britain charts the evolution of his work in their new exhibition William Blake which places his output in its proper personal, social and political context, revealing a man born into respectability struggling to find an audience for his increasingly challenging work, and only through the patronage of a few key friends is William Blake remembered at all.

Opening to coincide with The Last Night of the Proms in which the rousingly nationalistic anthem Jerusalem is annually performed using Blake’s lyrics, the exhibition is a chronological catalogue of the numerous strands of Blake’s personal and professional life, as well as the many innovative techniques and approaches he applied to his art. There is an additional sense of the man as a commercial printer and engraver simultaneously producing work in a variety of forms and styles throughout his lifetime. We saw in Tate Britain’s equally revealing van Gogh show earlier this year that artists are rarely able to focus on one avenue and must respond to commissions or undertake other forms of work to support their lifestyles. Blake was the same and, as this exhibition strongly argues, it is at this intersection of the imaginative and commercial forces that resided within Blake which caused him so much trouble.

Blake was a devoted Londoner, born in Soho and rarely moving more than a few streets in either direction apart from a few years in Sussex.  He was born into a trading family who encouraged his interest in becoming an artist and supported his apprenticeship as an engraver, a pragmatic approach to fostering an outcome to his creativity that he could sell. The first suite of rooms are dedicated to Blake’s time at the Royal Academy and the classical forms he was encouraged to replicate.  As Constable would find just a few years later, the emphasis was on emulating the past, seeking to mirror the anatomical perfection of renaissance artists as well as copying from sculpture in lieu of life drawing of which Blake was not a fan.

These heavily muscled sketches can be seen again and again in his later work and Blake’s eye for bulging physical form seen through the sheerest of gowns and coverings is visible well into his later, more experimental work. It was also during his Royal Academy training that Blake develop the gesticulating figures with almost unreadable expression that also feature in his more mystical pieces later in the exhibition, including the ink and watercolour figure of ‘Moses Receiving the Law’ created in the 1780s. Referencing earlier artists that Blake admired, this white and grey depiction of the 10 Commandments is striking in its simplicity, managing to simultaneously evoke a sense of peace and biblical formality as Moses’s long beard flows into his loose gown, arms uplifted to the clouds holding the reverential word of God, his face a picture of a solemnity.

Job, his Wife and his Friends: The Complaint of Job, William Blake c.1785Blake’s early work drew on these Old Testament stories presenting in paler form the hint of the fire and brimestone God he would later reveal in the coloured work he produced closer to the turn of the century. But seeing these early pieces side-by-side in the first section, you see  the consistency with which Blake created the idea of a brutal God. ‘Job, his Wife and Friends’ from 1785 is full of fear, the bearded horrified face of Job referencing the stone gargoyles of medieval churches – an image Blake returns to again and again in his work. This early piece is filled with people hunched in pleading supplication, fear or awe of some almighty force, awaiting the terrors about to befall them. The theme recurs in Blake’s three-picture representation of the Joseph story, his brothers come to plead for food, fearfully and sorrowfully gathering at the feet of the sibling they fail to recognise.

Contrast the motif of unhappiness with the lightness of spirit revealed in one of Blake’s most famous early works depicting much-loved characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing [c.1786], which depicts the wistful happiness of a party, and with Shakespeare drawings popular at the time, it suggests Blake made some attempts to create more salable pieces. Yet it’s perhaps not all it seems, note also the decision to include four fairies in a ring, an image that links directly to Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music Of Time dated about 150 years earlier which depicts the seasons and the circularity of human life, permanently linking the fruitfulness of summer with death and decay to come – a theme that troubled Blake increasingly as his own work matured.

The second group of rooms showcases Blake’s work as an engraver from the late 1780s, considering both the skills he developed to sustain a healthy trade and his contribution to developments in the industry, not all of them entirely welcome. Even early in his career as an artist the exhibition makes clear that Blake’s attempts to subvert expectation was a source of considerable frustration, unable to meet the commercial expectations of the market or to find a general acceptance of his work. This darkening of the mood is a key theme in Blake’s development and seemingly the less his work was appreciated and recognised the further his imagination went.

America A Prophecy Plate 10, William BlakeThroughout his career Blake wrote and illustrated his own books but not all of these were published. Prints from these various editions are on display across the exhibition and the curators thoughtfully introduce an interesting meta-discussion about the different experience of viewing these as works of art in glass frames rather than reading them as interlinking sections of a single volume as they were originally intended to be seen. Among his most famous pieces are excerpts from Songs of Innocence and Experience, still a classroom favourite, with elaborate margin decoration that links to the religious medieval manuscripts that Blake emulates, alongside America, a Prophecy. Some of these pages are very small so expect queues as you make your way round these sections but the introduction of colour is striking and Blake uses mauve and blue to create shadow, while a brighter red suggests patches of light as the familiar figure of a man in white robes clings to the rocks, arms as ever outstretched in sacrificial repose.

You see clearly the development of Blake’s more dramatic style in the creation of these works with ‘Los and Orc’ a notable turning point in the 1790s where Blake’s mythical creations and darker visions start to invade and consume his work more completely. ‘Lucifer and the Pope in Hell’ from 1794-6 is a dastardly vision of scary gargoyles and hell’s terrifying power as a reluctant clergymen is led unwillingly to the burning pit by a scaled devil – Blake’s view of the Catholic hierarchy clearly visible! These images from the Book of Designs and the Book of Urizen are filled with terrible visions of fire, pain, decay and peopled by alarming characters whose eyes bulge with fear. It’s then only a short imaginative leap, and a brief stroll into the next room, to understand how these tortured creatures became the more elaborate depictions of devils and dragons in Blake’s extraordinary work commissioned by Thomas Butts.

TThe Number of the Beast is 666, William Blake he third section of the exhibition looks at the influence of patronage on Blake’s freedom to create art of extraordinary power and darkness, and while some of his pieces retain their lighter religious symbolism or evoke the simple country aesthetic of English rural life, it is works such as ‘The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea,’ ‘The Number of the Beast is 666’ and ‘Satan in his Original Glory’ which Blake was creating around the same time which provide the most fascinating insight into the conflicting division within his style and presumably his soul at this time. While ‘The Great Red Dragon’ is notably absent from the show, Blake’s disturbing depiction of the many-headed devil with star-patterned wings standing imposingly like Colossus over the oceanic gargoyles is fascinating. Likewise the ‘Number of the Beast is 666’ is an astoundingly nightmarish creation, that classical muscularity of body distorted and rippled as an imposing figure stands over another equally deformed being. Also in this room a chance to see the frightening and improbably muscled figures in Blake’s illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, which in ‘Route of the Rebel Angels’ are given a near human form as the upside down bodies clutch their heads in agony – it makes for a sharp contrast with the wispy simplicity of Shakespeare’s dancing fairies only a couple of rooms and 20 years before.

From here the show moves to Blake’s most famous larger prints in which he employed another new monotyping technique using ink pressing and watercolour to create the famous image of Newton bent over his mathematical workings – turned into a large-scale statue at the British Library – the exquisite purple-blue shading of the rocks echoing the prints in America, a Prophecy, while nodding to the spread of Enlightenment ideals that would soon banish creationist notions from scientific discourse. Here also is the brutal image of Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all-fours, the flesh of his thighs slowly morphing into the haunches of a beast as that familiarly bearded face that haunts so many Blake pieces stares out in desperation. ‘The House of Death‘ in the same room uses less vivid colours than these other works but shows Blake experimenting with approaches to better convey his subject matter, lines from Milton foreshadowing the painful destruction of mankind with gaunt figures printed largely in ghostly grey and white.

The exhibition concludes with a small recreation of Blake’s disastrous and poorly attended 1809 exhibition at his Soho home which plunged him into depression for many years, angered by the lack of acclaim for his work and the refusal of art’s governing bodies including the Royal Academy to exhibit his work appropriately. And through the curation of this engaging exhibition the viewer has felt the inevitability of this outcome, that the increasingly imaginative and disturbing elements of Blake’s work came to dominate his artistic expression in a world still used to the safety of Gainsborough and the compliant portrait painters Blake so detested. There is a sense as you wander through these rooms of a mind freeing itself of all restraint, and of a fantasy life, like the Red Dragon, imposing itself on Blake’s commercial output as well, leading to a final rupture that left the artist in exile for some years.

But the Tate wants to send you home with hope and the final section which contains the illustrated text of Jerusalem is about rediscovery and the late recognition Blake received thorough partnerships with younger artists discovering his work afresh – and in 1818 it should be noted after the revolutionary fervor of the continent had died down with the final defeat of Napoleon – leading to a reappraisal of the value of Blake’s work beyond the shock and fear it once induced. So genius or lunatic? Well almost certainly both, but as this comprehensive exhibition so clearly argues there was always a duality in Blake’s artistic contribution, balancing the commercial with the personal, the two constantly overlapping as he strove for recognition. Blake was perhaps not a person it would have been easy to know but he is certainly not an artist you can ignore, and while we may never fully know if the visions he claimed to see were a sign of madness, this guided tour through the brilliant recesses of his imagination with all its classical symbolism, medieval symmetry and eventual descent into hellish vistas will haunt you for the rest of the week.

William Blake is at Tate Britain until 2 February. Tickets are £18 and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   


Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One – Tate Britain

Christopher Nevinson - Paths of Glory [1918]

Otto Dix once wrote that “artists should not proselytise or reform… all they have to do is bear witness”, a quotation that accompanies a fascinating selection of prints entitled The War that have much to say about the impact of the First World War both on the physical body and on the creation of art in Britain, Germany and France in the ensuing years. In Tate Britain’s carefully curated new show Aftermath, the physical, political and emotional cost of conflict is writ large in an extraordinary combination of work, predominantly from men who served, arguing that the depiction of loss, devastation and destruction had far reaching effects for artists across Europe.

As the four-year commemoration programme draws to a close, it is timely to reflect on the welcome diversity and creativity that has resulted in an insightful and more inclusive approach to public memorialisation. No longer a hymn to soldier poets alone, we have seen reflections on the role of all three services, with dedicated Great War exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum and RAF Museum, while the Science Museum’s focus on technological innovation delivered the impressive Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care about the medical response to war. A variety of activities and publications also examined the experience of war from the new perspectives and properly brought them into the public realm for the first time, giving voice to colonial recruits, allies, official “enemies”, female service personnel, refugees and those on the Home Front which has permanently enriched our understanding of this crucial period in European history.

Culturally, there have also been substantial and memorable contributions, not least from Paul Cummins and Tom Piper whose glorious display of poppies cascading down the walls of the Tower of London, filling the moat, was an unforgettable start to the programme back in 2014 – the sale and subsequent tracking of those poppies is a piece of social history that is of enormous value to our understanding of the longevity of emotional responses to this conflict. Equally powerful was Rufus Norris and Jeremy Deller’s physical living artwork We Were Here where young actors dressed as soldiers appeared across the country at railway stations and on the tube as a poignant reminder of those who never came back.

This, then is the context in which Aftermath appears and, happily, one which its curation reflects – presenting a picture of a diverse and complex technological war that unnaturally ravaged the individual body with ramifications for the state’s duty of care. As you wander through the eight rooms of this exhibition, many of which are dedicated to images of suffering, neglect and decay, the question in your mind is “was it worth it”? The answer for many artists is surprisingly complicated, and far more nuanced than our embedded image of disillusion and slaughter.

Taking a multinational, multi-service perspective allows us to see that irrespective of victory, Britain, France and Germany were united by the devastating impact of war on their societies, that they shared the tricky post-war problem of how to appropriately design memorials to the fallen, and how to support the huge numbers of disabled veterans released back into society, many of whom were left poor and destitute. Aftermath grapples with the idea of renewal and rebirth at a time when the cost of war was so visible and how art, like poetry, memoir-writing and ex-servicemen associations, became a vital outlet for men to continually relive and revisit the most horrific, but also the most meaningful, experience of their lives.

What strikes you first is the pity of it, the human cost replicated in scene after scene showing the dead, dying or merely absent on the battlefield. The tin hat, Aftermath argues became a potent symbol of death in many art works, shorthand for the loss of life its emptiness implies, with three hats displayed in a central case. But artists were also honest about what they saw, and Room 1 on Battlefields and Ruins shows the carnage of broken bodies in a series of powerful paintings. Luc-Albert Moreau’s 1918 piece Chemin des Dames Assault may be abstract but clearly shows the brutal death of a soldier impaled on a tree. This is far from the quiet heroism that memorials usually suggest, here death is cruel and real and ugly. Nowhere more so than in Paul Nash’s Wire from 1918-19 showing a tree trunk smashed to pieces, a metaphor for the human body, or Christopher Nevinson’s Paths of Glory [1917] whose coppery swirls glisten in the light of the gallery giving a strange ethereal quality to the dead soldiers face down in the mud. Nevinson’s picture is one of the most powerful in the show, not just a fine war image but one of the finest paintings ever created.

As soon as you step inside, the scale and breadth of the war becomes startlingly clear, and the diversity of artistic responses is striking. In this first room alone, paintings sit alongside sculpture, photographs and videos, positioned against other commemorative outlets including battlefield guides and souvenirs made from shell casing or bullets. Walking into Room 2, focusing on official memorialisation, you start to notice your emotional response to the pieces, where works by Charles Sergeant Jagger and Stanley Spencer are testament to the ongoing confusion and sense of fracture that remained in the years following the Armistice. Jagger’s use of realistic military clothing and weapons reflecting the technological advances in equipment drew praise from contemporaries, and in a model for his Great Western Railway memorial he dressed a soldier in a greatcoat with eyes downcast to the letters he’s reading from home, speaking volumes about the pain the outcomes of war were unable to reconcile. Spencer reiterates this in his painting Unveiling Cookham War Memorial [1922] as people hang from net-curtained windows, and a sombre-faced crowd surge forward to see this architectural response to war, still grieving, still remembering at the annual recitation of the names of the fallen.

That cost of war is stark too in Frank Owen Salisbury’s 1920 depiction of The Passing of the Unknown Warrior whose large-scale funeral cortege along Whitehall has representatives of all three services escorting the flag-draped coffin of this lasting symbol of war’s futility. Notably, the living are primarily high-ranked, middle-aged men, the leaders of war giving thought to the once young life they are about to inter in Westminster Abbey. Here, in the heart of the British Establishment, the “Traces of War” are vividly captured by Salisbury, making the perfect link to the next part of the exhibition that considers artistic representations of men who survived but were physically damaged by the conflict.

Although produced for scientific study, Henry Tonks’s images of facial injuries drawn in pale colours are remarkably graphic but full of empathy for his patients that make them difficult, but important, viewing. Likewise, Rosine Cahen’s work in Villennis Hospital are a thoughtful record of the injuries sustained by French soldiers. But there is a political purpose at work here too, with curators Emma Chambers and Rachel Smith selecting accompanying work that reflects the widespread failure to support disabled veterans. Not the first-time men had returned with bodily damage inflicted by warfare, the scale of returnees unable to work or resume their former lives was certainly new, and neither French, German or British societies were ready to respond to their needs, despite greater visibility of disabled veterans in France.

Conrad Felixmuller’s 1919 Soldier in the Madhouse I and II reflect the confusion of the psychological effect of war, their powerful lines and geometric shapes suggesting the distortion of the mind and anxiety of the sufferer – something health systems were largely ill prepared to support. More shocking is the way in which disabled veterans are depicted, often ignored or reduced to penury, their physical appearance surprising, and sometimes even frightening. This work by artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz was designed to reflect society’s mistreatment of their veterans, and these simple pen sketches remain a powerful indictment of their failure.

Despite Dix’s claim to “bare witness”, his work is full of political fervour. His 1924 prints, on display in Room 5, are horrifying reflections of men at war; Wounded Man shows a face ravaged with pain and trapped in a kind of hell, while Mealtime in the Trenches at first glance looks like an arctic scene as a huddled and freezing figure eats tentatively in the howling blizzard, his fear emanating from the picture. Dix was even more candid in Skull and Dance of Death drawing on images of mortality as creatures begin to inhabit a now decayed head, while in the latter bodies are strewn across the barbed wire landscape of No Man’s Land. In the same room, Kath Kollowitz’s 1922 woodcuts were an outlet for her own grief at the death of her son, with a series of images of the Home Front as bereaved mothers, parents and pregnant lovers comment on the consequences of death for those left behind – not just emotionally but in the economic effect on entire families left without a breadwinner.

Resentment also continued towards war profiteers and the thoughtless public who enjoyed themselves while men died abroad, and this was reflected in numerous artworks. Max Beckmann captures a lovely geometric energy in his print of dancers called Malepartus [1917], while in Room 7 on Post-war People, William Roberts’s incredible 1923 painting The Jazz Club (The Dance Party) cannot be viewed enough. Fantastically vibrant Roberts’s stylised image reflects the excitement of the new age, of music blaring from an overlarge gramophone which guides the dancing couples in a leaning pack. Meanwhile, Edward Burra and George Grosz focus on the venality of the public, so Burra’s The Snack Bar from 1930 shows a blowsy woman, over-made-up sitting at a counter while a man in the foreground slices a ham. There’s a whiff of death and decay about the scene, something garish and unsettling. Likewise, Grosz’s powerful image of a businessman ignoring the plight of the haggard soldier and working man behind him in Grey Day [1921] is a striking indictment of those who turned their backs on veterans once the war was won.

It doesn’t all work and rooms focusing on surrealism, agricultural scenes and post-war cities feel out of place. They were legitimate reactions to war and are rightly encompassed by Aftermath’s wider examination of artistic change, but in light of the emotional reaction created by the other rooms, they feel bland and distracting – not that it isn’t a treat to see works like The Garden Enclosed by war veteran David Jones [1924], last seen in the Sussex Modernism show at Two Temples Place, but pastoral landscapes by those who didn’t participate in the conflict seem somehow less important with the political power of Otto Dix and Christopher Nevinson fresh in your mind.

As we reach the final months of a four-year commemoration programme, there have been many significant artistic responses that have widened our general understand of the implications of the First World War and the men from all over the world who fought in all services on all sides. Aftermath feels like the summation of all that work, building-up to this thoughtful and important show. Our public memory of disillusioned soldiers unwillingly sacrificed is beginning to shift; from the first day of the war, reactions to it were complex, overwhelming and fluctuating. What Aftermath does is remind us that death was not the only outcome of the war, men came home and had to go on living in a fractured and uncertain society with no idea how to care for them and what it all meant. Their artistic responses captured in this wonderful exhibition shows they spent a lifetime trying to find out.

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One is at Tate Britain until 23 September. Tickets start ay £16 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Red – Wyndhams Theatre

Red - Wyndhams Theatre

All art is ultimately tragedy, commodified, misinterpreted and subject to the whims of fashion, the greatest art will always mean the self-destruction of the individual, standing apart from real life but forced to see their work reduced by the people who buy it. Whether it is designed to stave-off fears about the fragility of human existence, or to rage against the artistic conventions handed down by generations of beloved artists before them, the creation of a single piece of art is a lonely moment of self-expression. Then again, it might all be self-indulgent nonsense?

John Logan’s Red returns to the West End for the first time since it premiered in 2009, exploring the complex separation between the fire which which something is created by an individual, and how it is subsequently viewed by the masses beyond the walls of the studio. Red is more than just a play, it is a conversation about driving an artistic vision, about purpose and fame and the weight of cultural context that can shape an artist’s profile allowing them to create something new, while simultaneously suffocating that expression of their world.

Set in the studio of Mark Rothko in late 1950s New York, Red opens with the arrival of new assistant Ken, a young artist, who is there to mix paint, clean-up and admire the senior painter. Told in no uncertain terms on day one that there will never be anything more than employer-employee relationship, Rothko focuses on creating a set of paintings commissioned by the new Four Seasons restaurant which he hopes will transform the room into a temple of art. Over two years, the men share few personal moments, but their discussions on the meaning of creativity come to shape them both irrevocably.

For all its high-minded discussion of artistic principles, Red is ultimately a very practical examination of the life of a working painter, taking in the day-to-day necessities of building and preparing canvasses, buying materials and plenty of thinking time. Michael Grandage’s revival may only be 90 minutes, but there is no sense of rush here, and instead the play – much like Rothko’s creations – is given room to breath, to slowly come into focus as a true picture emerges. What you see at first is not the finished piece, but something that takes shape through the conversations between Rothko and Ken, as they find a value in each other’s perspective.

And the mere existence of this relationship, based on little but a financial transaction of employment, becomes hugely significant in the shaping of Rothko’s character and the serious, methodical approach to his work. The first and last image we see is of the man alone, looking at his creations with nothing else in his life. Ken is almost the only person he speaks to in the play, and certainly the only one permitted to see the vision from the inside. Rothko’s essential loneliness (and preference for it), his devotion to creating the right low-level of lighting and to sealing off his creative space from any external influence, speaks volumes about the singularity of purpose Logan suggests is necessary to create eternal art.

At the same time, Ken represents a period of change in society, in art and in Rothko’s approach to the reception of his work. When he roars against commodification of art and condemns emerging Pop Artists, he is giving voice to his own fears of sudden irrelevance and ultimately his own mortality. The tragedy that Rothko fears, that suffuses his work, is exactly the kind of overthrow that his generation was once responsible for, when Cubism was edged out by Abstract Expressionism. The drama in Red comes from this struggle between historical past and present, and between art history and evolving concepts of creativity, for which the characters of Rothko and Ken are metaphors.

As the action unfolds, it’s fascinating to see Ken emerging in confidence as a person but also as an artist. We never see his own work, but where initially he received Rothko’s opinions in almost silent awe, over time he argues back, staking his claim to relevance in the here and now while stepping out from behind Rothko’s shadow into the light. And it is no coincidence that it is Ken’s own shadow we see reflected on the canvas later in the play, and, in the penultimate scene Ken stands alone on stage contemplating the work as he will soon do for his own.

But there is also a very modern relevance here about the disposable nature of contemporary living, with the sense of times changing, in Rothko’s view, for the worse. Even though Logan wrote Red in 2009, long after social media had begun to take root, Rothko’s criticism of the public focus on “likes” still feels prophetic, while his views on those purchasing his art just to be seen, to be known to have taste, or to keep up with Jones’s similarly speaks to more recent obsessions with Instagram lifestyles. If everything is design to capture a single moment, what are the future foundations of our society, where does history, tradition and experience fit in a world based on endless throwaway consumption?

In our new context, Logan’s argument that art matters because it transcends time and is carved from thought, pain and sacrifice is still quite powerful, that creative things should be loved because they have meaning and should inspire us to see and feel the world differently. Grandage’s direction uses the moments of silence to allow the audience to contemplate these discussions, so, like Rothko’s approach to painting, Logan’s frantic moments of debate are counterbalanced by the opportunity to sit back for a few moments and try to see ourselves more clearly.

Christopher Oram’s set is at once an open space, giving the paintings room to exist and to be considered, while suggesting a sealed vacuum, a dimly-lit chamber in which Rothko both actively separates and cautiously protects himself from the vagaries of the world outside. But it also reflects Ken’s experience to a degree as a white canvas, t-shirts and even a movable cupboard are slashed with red paint that subtly links to an important childhood memory.

Adam Cork’s music selection frequently reflects the emotive tenor of a scene, using carefully selected classical pieces to create a mood of frenzied work accompanied by heavy orchestral sounds or lighter imaginative sequences supported by sprightlier tunes. Ken’s conversion is complete when he breaches the walls, bringing in his radical jazz, intruding into Rothko’s private space and bringing new sensations and purpose with him.

Reprising a role that he played in the premiere production at the Donmar almost a decade ago, as well as his award-winning turn on Broadway, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Alfred Molina playing the famous painter. He captures the full-range of contradictions, complexities and passion Rothko exudes, using every second on stage to suggest the mix of arrogance, artistic certainty and dedicated craftsmanship of a serious artist. Only 10% of the time spent creating great work is actually painting he says at one point, so Molina never just stands on the stage, he shows Rothko always thinking about the work, assessing how the piece is unfolding or actively preparing his materials.

Even in discussion with Ken, you feel his mind working endlessly, engaging with the conversation, absorbing every comment and thinking deeply about what’s to come. Yet, Molina remains almost still during these scenes, suggesting all the certainty of a man at ease with his status as a genius, a certainty that comes with age and success that feels imposing, almost intimidating. Molina commands the room, filling his Rothko with bitter rebuke for the less restrained era he lives in, unhappy with the inexperience of an audience unable to properly appreciate the levels of meaning and value of the work they are privileged to see.

Yet, in the new light reflected from Ken’s presence, Molina also suggests at heart Rothko is afraid, almost hiding away to protect his essential fragility. His use of black and red representing the encroaching darkness and frequent references to a sense of tragedy that seems to beset him. It implies a man fighting for his place in art history, desperate to be remembered and to be understood, using his overbearing personality to fake a certainty he is far from feeling. Molina’s trick is to make you wonder how much Rothko has even admitted this to himself.

Alfred Enoch as Ken charts a course through initial naivety and deference, to becoming more confident in his opinions and airing his frustrations. While references, and eventually a full description, of a childhood tragedy are the only aspect of Logan’s play that feel a tad false, as though the young man has been given a convenient backstory on which Logan can hang some of his themes, nonetheless Enoch creates a character who must be the audience’s way in to the story, he is our view of Rothko which shifts and evolves as Ken displays him to us.

Ken fulfils much of the practical activity necessary to run a studio, moving paintings, covering canvasses, mixing shades of colour which act as a tutorial for the emerging artist, and, as Rothko demands, we begin to see him contemplating his wider role in the creation of art from a philosophical and cultural perspective as the months pass. Enoch’s Ken actively grows in front of us until he can stand his own ground, and while Molina’s performance is exceptional, Enoch more than holds his own on the exposing Wydnhams stage.

Red is a show where the audience really needs to see the art work to understand Rothko’s near torment in creating it, so finding a seat with a decent view is important.* Like the Donmar where it first opened, the Wyndhams is a particularly useful choice with good sightlines from most seats, even in the balcony, allowing you to see the large replica paintings scattered around the stage. This may be one occasion where sitting higher-up in the theatre would be an advantage because it gives the viewer a chance to see the minutiae of studio work that won’t be as visible from the stalls, offering a wider perspective on the backstage creation of a single painting as the play intends.

The struggle for artistic integrity and the personal cost of creating art has been a feature of some of London’s most recent productions, including The Writer and Mood Music, which both examined the consequence of female creativity. In this context, this fascinating revival of Red shows us that to create is to suffer, but the tragedy is in knowing that what’s left behind may not mean as much to its consumers. Art, then, is tragedy to some degree, but for an audience this 90-minutes of engaging debate and conversation is pure joy.

Red is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 28 July. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  

 

* In choosing good seats, the website Seatplan is particularly useful and user-friendly. It contains a comprehensive layout of every London theatre (and many others), with reviews, star ratings and pictures of the view from individual seats, all uploaded by audience members. Much like TripAdvisor, individuals can add their own experience, and it’s a great place to find tips on legroom, comfort and sightlines before you book. While not every seat has been rated yet – most have and are now colour-coded, so you can see at a glance – you can usually get a sense of the view from the next seat, and you can easily see which reviews also include an image which is invaluable, particularly in the older theatres where the curve of the auditorium or circle overhang can obscure large parts of the stage. The front page is now more focused on selling tickets but the search field for theatre layouts is obvious at the top


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