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Echoes Across the Century – Guildhall Art Gallery

Echoes Across the Century - Guildhall Art Gallery

The memory of the First World War continues to be hotly debated. From the moment it finished to the present day, just who owns the idea of “true experience” has led to considerable discontent as individuals demanded their chance to be heard. In the immediate aftermath, many veterans felt sidelined by a national female grief – given physical monument in the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – that prioritised the loss experienced by mothers, wives and girlfriends whose menfolk never returned. But the with the proliferation of servicemen memoirs from the late 1920s and its 1960s rediscovery that returned the emotion and sorrow of the First World War to public consciousness, the only truth historians and national ceremonies wanted to tell was that of soldier experience.

Now, a hundred years on, the centenary commemorations have created space for other voices, for the millions of people who were daily affected by a consuming conflict that dominated Europe for four years, and whose impact lasted long after the Armistice. Whether fighting in khaki, in the air, on the sea or enduring the privations of the Home Front, there has been a drive to understand the first total war from a variety of perspectives. Latest among them is Guildhall Art Gallery’s new show, Echoes Across the Century that puts the issue of female grief and loss back at the forefront of exploration.

Jessie Ellman was a nurse whose schoolteacher fiancé, William Hicks, was killed in 1917. Her response was a lifetime of devoted devastation and although she married again, many years later published a death notice in The Times to remember him. Channelling Ellman’s sorrow and lost hopes, artist Jane Churchill had created a number of fantasy artworks that visualise a dream world in which Jesse is reunited with William, and, with no formal grave, Churchill attempts to give him a more fitting and beautiful final engagement with nature. In each 3D box scene, Churchill has cut out various types of landscape using card and plastic, and inserted a small soldier figure – in one she also adds a figurine woman to represent Jessie. These beautiful pieces are both romantic and intensely sad, exploring the personal effect of every single death, and the ways in which women spent a lifetime responding to it.

Jane Churchill - Jessie Ellman's DreamworldWhile each has its own emotional charge, particularly skillful is a three-layered scene of trees cut from single sheets of plastic arranged one in front of the other to give a sense of perspective. In the centre at the back of the box is the figure of William staring up at the moon. It’s wistful and romantic but tries to visualise the nature of grief in the interwar period, the effect of absence in daily life and the ongoing interaction with its collective memory.

Churchill also uses the cut-out idea to create a series of butterflies or moths that look like an anthropologist case in a dusty Victorian museum. But each individual creature is carefully cut from war-related newspapers, maps, photographs or letters, and labelled to represent individual fatalities or particular regions of fighting. The fragility of death is strongly evoked, particularly in the section where Churchill pins a single model soldier into the wings of the butterfly to form the central body – a scathing commentary on the way in which First World War deaths become pinioned and encased, ripped of their original meaning, like specimens to be studied rather than living breathing men whose deaths had consequences for those around them.

Jane Churchill - Butterfly CollectionEmphasising her idea that our connection to distant events comes through the transference of an emotional memory, Churchill also grapples with ideas about grief in more traditional ways. She uses memory boxes and cabinets of tears to think about what mementos and the everyday objects people kept to remember their loved ones, and some of these are on display. Again, in one she uses the story of Ellman and Hicks to visualise the Ellman’s sorrow by bottling her imagined tears as she thinks back to special moments in their lives together, and labels each accordingly. There’s something ritualistic, almost religious, about the type of memorialisation which Churchill is exploring, and asks questions about the comfort these give in the grieving process.

Arguably, as art it’s certainly sentimental and as history it’s presumptive, particularly in the appropriation and supposed interpretation of Jessie Ellman’s private memories – who are we to really know what Ellman felt and imagined in the years after William’s death – but that aside, Churchill’s intent is particularly interesting, and using art to examine complex ideas of remembrance, especially beyond living memory is a successful outcome of this show. How and who we decide to remember is a question that runs through this exhibition and, as the centenary events have demonstrated, after a 50-year focus on soldiers in the national collective memory, so many other aspects of the war had simply been written out of the story.

To reinforce this idea that art can help to create and embed memories, even other people’s, the second part of Echoes Across the Century hands the baton to over 200 secondary school pupils who have developed their own responses to Churchill’s work and assumed memories of the First World War. This room, designed like a trench, is broken up into various segments that display the art by category, and for the first time takes the viewer into wider and unexpected aspects of warfare. Primarily concerned with the supply chain, there are paintings, models and sculpture that think about the concept of total war and the variety of supporting mechanisms that kept the show on the road.

Above all, war is a system, and while we continue to prioritise the experience of soldiers who by far bore the brunt of fighting and loss, this part of this exhibition gives a much broader picture, even for those who know the subject well. In the first section, pupils have created some memory boxes, like Churchill’s, to commemorate Hospital Ships with pill bottles, tins and stained bandages, each with an explanation of the artist’s intent to understand what inspired their choices.

Most fascinating is a section on spectacles, supplied to some soldiers to keep them fighting, but here take on a sinister aspect. One A-Level pupil from Dunraven School has painted a headshot of a soldier with what from a distance looks like dark round sunglasses. But as you move closer you see that his entire eye-well has been cut out entirely and all that remains are the frames and arms of the glasses. Instead at the back of his eyes, looking through layers of cut out card that link to Churchill’s dream boxes, are a scene of smoke and destruction in his right eye, and one of calm moonlight in the left. It’s a bold and unusually sharp piece about the vast difference between men’s noble expectations of war and the grim mechanised reality.

Horses, the air force, rations tins and saddlery all get the artistic treatment, and while not explored in much depth are a worthy reminder that the provision of basic necessities to every man fighting was a huge industrial process that had to be managed and controlled. It concludes with hundreds of individually created butterflies in cases that echo Churchill’s focus on personal memory and returning to individual impacts of warfare. Echoes Across the Century may not always reflect the bigger-picture history as carefully as the individual stories, but it does remind us that while the First World War may feel remote, its emotional impact continues to be felt. And in a period where we’ve begun to think about the war from multiple perspectives, restoring the expression of female grief to the story helps us to understand why this is a war that, as a society, we will not forget.

Echoes Across the Century is at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 16 July. Entrance is free and the gallery is openly daily. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age – Barbican

Do we ever really look at the buildings around us? Maybe in the big cities, and particularly in London where you’re tripping over heritage sites every few meters but what about all those other buildings which architects have designed as office spaces, suburban homes or even farmsteads? Time, planning and considerable amounts of money have gone into them, they may not be obviously pretty but for the vast majority of buildings architecture has a functional purpose which this new exhibition at the Barbican explores. Photographs of buildings may not sound that riveting but this is an insightful and nicely curated exploration of developments since the 1930s using examples from around the world.

One thing that very clearly emerges from this exhibition is the idea of architectural intent and how often this differs from the ultimate purpose of the building they designed. There are two very good examples of this, first in the pictures of Guy Tillim showing the decaying remnants of buildings in Africa which is now used as accommodation. These places, built in a spirit of optimism have fallen into near ruin, and though once clearly beautiful are now crumbling, covered in weeds and the washing of their new inhabitants. Similarly the photos of Iwan Baan in Venezuela show a building that was never completed and eventually became the home of a huge number of poor families squatting in the empty structure. This place built as a monument to modernity and progress had become a regular part of the slum conditions of the area. The purpose and enthusiasm for which things are created can often be radically altered once their original use fades or is overridden.

Another interesting aspect of this exhibition is the contrast between rural and urban building concepts. Perhaps the most obvious historic example of the very epitome of architectural progress is the 1930s construction of New York and the work of Berenice Abbott is a fascinating exposition of this process. We see that contrast of old and new, as skyscrapers or modernist homes go up next to old brownstones, and there’s some fascinating shots of rubble sites or old streets with shiny new buildings in the background behind them. A great contrast to this in the next section is the contemporaneous Walker Evans pictures of life in rural Louisiana – farmhouses and shacks as well as the people living in them. They show a life of hard work, poverty and tough conditions that seem grindingly permanent and so far removed from the hope and progress in the photos of New York.

Two of the most intriguing aspects of this show are in the upper gallery – Ed Ruscha’s aerial images of American car parks and a wall of German water towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher. That sounds pretty dull I know but I haven’t gone entirely mad; the semi-empty car parks actually make for some interesting patterns, both in how they’re arranged around important sites like sports stadia and in the interlocking arrangement of lines and boxes. Similarly the water towers which are displayed together in a unit show the enormous regional diversity in architectural styles and preferences, from art deco influenced minimalist shapes to fairy-tale like castle turrets. Probably more than any part of the exhibition these two photographers exemplify that notion of hidden architecture, the stuff we pass every day without a moment’s thought.

Of course this exhibition is about more than the buildings it’s also about the photography and there are some beautifully captured images including Simon Norfolk’s studies of regeneration in Afghanistan where elaborate cartoon-like structures are appearing. One of a garden looks almost like a painting where the approach with which the individual leaves have been shot looking not dissimilar to the way Constable might have painted them. There’s Julius Shulman’s magazine-shoot of California hill-side homes that are exactly as Hockney depicted them, but the most stunning are saved for the end; Nadav Kandar’s large scale shots of riverside China are beautiful and show local people engaged in traditional pursuits that could come from any era, like fishing, bathing or picking, whilst hazily captured enormous bridges and buildings are being built in the background. The somewhat timeless quality of the people makes an interesting juxtaposition with the modernity appearing around them, and takes you right back to those Berenice Abbott pictures of New York in the first room.

There are a couple of things that don’t work that well; it’s clear how architectural taste and styles develop but we don’t see so much on how the photography of it has changed, and given this is specifically meant to be an exhibition of architectural photography it would be interesting to understand more about the things these artists look for in a subject. This is especially true in the formal partnerships of particular photographers and architects – what is it that the one continuously finds inspiring about the other. There is also a greater focus on American than anywhere else and it seems a shame given the Barbican location not to use this as inspiration to showcase more UK work. There are 18 artists on show and London has had its fair share of controversial buildings that have been repurposed, the Millennium Dome for one, so it may have been interesting to give just one room a local flavour. Nonetheless Constructing Worlds is a fascinating journey across the 20th and 21st centuries, from car-parks to skyscrapers, showing just how broad architectural work is and how the plans and hopes for new buildings often become something quite different in practice.

Constructing Worlds: Photography & Architecture in the Modern Age is at the Barbican until 11 January 2015. Tickets cost £12 with good concessions available.

Lego: The Art of the Brick – Old Truman Brewery

First published on The Public Reviews website.

My BoyIs it art, that is what a lot of critics will be asking of Nathan Sawaya’s Lego sculptures that take in a broad range of influences from classic artists to dinosaurs, is it art? So, let’s be clear about this from the beginning, yes it is. If an artist creates something that provokes a reaction from the audience, makes you think or feel something based on the form in front of you then an artistic exchange is taking place. In some ways The Art of the Brick links back to the Pop Art idea of taking a mundane item and repurposing it into something beautiful, and in this exhibition Sawayer has used the humble two by three plastic block to think more widely about the human condition.

The first room is a clear challenge to the naysayers by showcasing some of the world’s most famous sculptures and paintings in Lego form. From a to-scale model of Rodin’s The Thinker (4332 bricks) to the Venus de Milo (18,483 bricks) and Michelangelo’s David (16,349 bricks) the technique here is impressive conveying both the sculptural feel and imposing grandeur of the original works. Taking this a stage further, there is a section of famous paintings including stunning versions of van Gogh’s Starry Night (3,493 bricks) and Munch’s The Scream (3991 bricks) using flat and layered effects to replicate the drama and motion of the paintings. The entirely flat Mona Lisa (4573 bricks) and Self Portrait by Rembrandt (1948 bricks) are perhaps slightly less engaging but no less skilfully realised. Each is accompanied by a small digital display giving some history Swimmerof the art work and the process of re-imagining it in Lego written by Sawaya – a welcome personal touch.

Having now legitimised Lego as a medium, the rest of the exhibition is full of innovative and engaging works celebrating the everyday, the absurd and the intense. Many of the pieces are inspired by a particularly aspects of humanity, such as coping with daily struggles, fears, despair or hiding behind masks. My Boy (22,590 bricks) was created from a real story told to the artist and shows a blue figure carrying another prostrate in its arms, beautifully conveying loss and pain. Similarly Despair shows a hunched grey figure clutching its head in its hands as a child might do which again is very affecting. By this point in the exhibition the fact it is all made of Lego no longer matters, you start to see the pieces for themselves and the meaning they represent.

These is also plenty of fun and innovation on show including works like giant pencils, a cello, the earth, traffic lights in the shape of faces and  an enormous dinosaur skeleton which took Sawayer a whole summer to build from over 80,000 bricks. There is a beautiful swimming figure half-revealed above the rippling water that took 15 days to create, and a clever nod to the exhibition’s current UK base in the final room with a Phone Boxred telephone box, Keep Calm and Build On poster and four slightly well-known musicians immortalised in Lego-form – The Beatles.

The Art of the Brick is a nicely varied exhibition balancing the fun of Lego building with more intense pieces that belie their component parts. Using a child’s toy to comment on complex adult emotions is an interesting concept and there exists a fascinating contrast between the medium and the mood, so expect to be in awe of the creativity on show. It is an exhibition about Lego so most will love the very idea of it, leaving the visitor free to enjoy the skill and sense of fun with which these pieces have been created, but expect to also be engaged emotionally. It may be Lego, but it is definitely art.

The Art of the Brick is at the Old Truman Brewery until 4 January. Tickets are £14.50 with concessions available.

The Human Factor – Hayward Gallery

The Hayward Gallery is fast becoming one of my favourite exhibition spaces in London. Of the three things that I’ve now seen there, all of them have been enjoyable, thought-provoking and good value for money. Even more important, I’ve been able to pitch up at any time and get a ticket for immediate entry. It’s sadly increasingly difficult to do this in London and more than once in recent weeks I’ve had to make multiple attempts to see exhibitions which are either sold out for the day or not availability for several hours. It’s August and the school holidays I suppose, but London used to be more care-free for those who don’t like the confinement of booking ahead.

So that makes the Hayward on the busy Southbank a temporary haven, even at the weekend. It’s a great exhibition space and I want it to do well, but it’s almost surreal to be alone (with a security guard) in a gallery room these days as I was a few times on my visit to The Human Factor, and I’m secretly hoping no one else cottons on to this place – so shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone!

In their current display 25 artists who have created sculptures of the human form in the past 25 years are showcased, giving a diverse and sometimes challenging view of the body. For lots of people the word sculpture immediately makes them think of classical white marble figures with scary blank eyes and missing limbs, but there’s none of that here… ok there’s one use of marble but it’s of a young child wearing a sheet to look like a ghost which is about as far from the ancient statues as you can get. The rest is a balanced combination of frighteningly real and entirely abstract representations of the human body.

You’re greeted by 2 giant wooden warriors with bottle-top heads, suggesting their original size, considerably scaled-up and realised in wood by German artist Katharina Fritsch, next to a two faced Falling Woman by Paloma Varga Weisz wrapped in cloth and suspended from the ceiling – from one angle the face is the right way up and it looks like a calm gymnast but walk around and you see an upside-down person which looks dead, the only change being the face – an interesting way to play with perspective.

My favourite things though are either abstract or completely bizarre, which the Hayward always delivers. First the giant sculpture by Georg Herold made of wood and covered in a bright pink wax, it’s a human form bent backwards at the waist with its arms stretched up along the wall and one leg tucked behind the other. Despite its geometric structure and material it looks almost balletic. Just across are 4 mannequins standing in bright blue gunge to depict the increasing violence of the world and its effect on the body. Each corresponds to different horrific images of a single dead man whose death has been more brutal and more destructive of his body than the one before. Thomas Hirschhorn’s dummies are increasingly buried in the gunge and gain more tattoos as the corresponding deaths become more horrific. This not a family show as you can tell.

If that wasn’t shocking enough, round the corner are 2 sculptures of Pawel Althamer and his then wife, made from straw and covered in decaying animal intestine – yep it’s pretty gross and fascinating at the same time. He describes them as ‘failed mummies’ because they are rotting as you look at them, not obviously but you know they are. Affecting in a different way are four people by Ugo Rondinone which are displayed in a room with no other work. Each one is in a different seated position against the mid-position of the four walls, so they form the points of a cross, and each is completely still in silent contemplation and deliberately with no evidence of action. Being alone (with security guard!) in this room with them was quite affecting – they were more than just still, they were melancholy as well – walking around each individually and stepping back to see them as a set, they seemed to imply a loneliness of the human form. A little more fun in the upper gallery is a playful skeleton on a dusty park bench which artist Urs Fischer explained is a more humorous idea of decay.

Of course with art a lot is about personal taste and there are a few pieces that I didn’t like or, dare I say it, were on the pretentious side. But other will no doubt think differently. That said, these were few and the vast majority of this collection was genuinely enjoyable to view.  The success of this exhibition is its ability to get you thinking about not just how the human form is constructed in a real and abstract sense, but also the ways in which it is used to perpetrate and receive violent attacks, to inflict and feel pain, to intimidate, to observe, to convey grace and beauty, shame and admiration, to revile, to exist, or as a political and historical tool to write and rewrite history at will, while its preservation and decay can become almost obsessive. If the Hayward Gallery made me think about all of that, then this exhibition has done its job. From October it will be showing London artists on the theme of What is Real? Given its random ticket availability and amazingly quiet galleries I’ll certainly be making my way to that – bit don’t tell anyone!

The Human Factor is at the Hayward Gallery until 7 September. Full price is £12 (with gallery donation) and a range of concessions are available.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs – Tate Modern

Matisse had long used cut-out shapes to plan his paintings, altering the position of objects to create the most pleasing composition before starting to paint. Towards the end of his life, with failing health, the cut-outs themselves became the art and this exhibition nicely charts the development of both the technique and scale of this.  Colour and simplicity are the watch-words throughout, using human shapes harking back to the style of cave paintings. Matisse’s skilled creation of fluid shapes that look effortless is impressive, layering the paper to create a sense of movement and depth. The two works showing Icarus are very special as is ‘The Horse, the Rider and the Clown’ which contrasts stark purple and blue.

Throughout there are opportunities to see printed reproductions of these works, such as book cover designs, shown next to the original piece. In almost all cases the duplicate looks flat and the colours muted, losing the jagged lines and colour banding which give texture to the cut-out. But it’s the sheer size and detail of later works that is most impressive, created on the walls of Matisse’s studio. ‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’ has six large panels filled with giant leaf and plant shapes individually cut in one piece from coloured paper, which is also interesting for its use of white space. Likewise the two large Oceania cut-outs which look above and below the sea use almost no colour at all, layering white shapes on a beige background, to create significant impact, emphasising the deceptive simplicity of Matisse’s work.

This exhibition charts the progression of form, style and skill very well, allowing you to see the technique refining in front of you. It builds nicely to the conclusion showing how cut-outs have been adapted for use in stained glass windows and priest’s robes, whilst retaining examples of Matisse’s painting which continued alongside the cut-outs for some time. I would have liked a little more information in the rooms about the styles and why particular shapes (such as the leaf) recurred so often, but I assume this is all in the expensive guide.

Although the exhibition itself is great and deserves to seen, the cost will leave a bitter taste long afterwards and genuinely ruined my enjoyment – £18… are they joking? Even the non-donation price of £16.30 is pretty unreasonable, whilst the concession of £16.00 (or £14.50 without donation) is pitiful; people on lower incomes or those who wouldn’t normally engage with art are not going to be able to spend this and it will stop them going. Charging a concession price of more than £10 is ludicrous. And it gets worse, you may grudgingly pay your £18, but then it’s another £4 if you want an audio guide (why is this not included?) and £40 if you want an exhibition catalogue to explain it all fully (£30 in paperback). You could easily spend the best part of £60 for just for one person. I appreciate there are enormous costs in running a gallery and the logistical expense of pulling together a show of this scale, but aren’t corporate sponsorships supposed to reduce the burden on the paying public?

You have to question whether the people setting ticket prices in galleries, and increasingly in theatres, have any conception of relative value? Even journalists who praised it in their newspaper columns probably went for free. Is it right to charge £18 to see this exhibition when you can go downstairs at the Tate Modern or along the river to the National Gallery and see some of the finest artworks ever produced for free? £18 is £8 more than I paid to see A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic which left a more powerful impression (on me at least), and £11 more than the wonderful Victoriana exhibition at the Guildhall last year. Maybe Londoners are spoiled by the vast array of cultural activities that are openly available, but surely that shouldn’t mean we pay over the odds for special events – there has to be some limits. Especially when the end result means galleries are failing in a duty to engage the widest section of society in their activities. It’s just a huge shame that so many people will be prevented from seeing the cut-outs and that institutions in receipt of public funds are not doing everything they can to engage with new audiences.

If you can afford it, Matisse: The Cut Outs is at the Tate Modern until 7 September. Ticket prices are £18 (£16.30 without donation) or £16 (£14.50) for concessions.

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