Modern Couples. Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde: Barbican

After a chilly but beautiful autumnal stroll on Saturday afternoon, I sought warmth at The Barbican and turns out I wasn’t the only one… as the queue for their current exhibition ‘Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde’ suggested! Spanning both floors of the gallery, it examines almost fifty artistic couples from Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin who were in a relationship from 1882 until 1892 through to Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer whose relationship lasted from 1953 until 1970, and various heterosexual, homosexual, artistic threesomes and friendships in between. It explores “artists” in the broadest sense, including painters, sculptors, photographers, textile makers, musicians, writers, publishers, furniture designers and architects – and more interestingly the impact they had on each other and society by taking a stance on various civil rights issues. Each section comprises a short summary of the couple alongside a portrait of each artist individually or together as a couple, with Virginia Woolf making two appearances – on the lower level with Vita Sackville-West and on the upper level with Leonard Wolfe. The show includes big name artists such as Salvador DalÍ (and Federico GarcÍa Lorca), Pablo Picasso (and Dora Maar), Frida Kahlo (and Diego Rivera) and Wassily Kandinsky (and Gabriele Münter) but also introduced me to artists I was previously unfamiliar with or highlighted relationships where one partner has certainly hogged the limelight – often unfairly – over the other. The exhibition is certainly tinged with sadness and a sprinkling of madness; numerous tales of forbidden love, age-gaps, and mental health issues as well as Oskar Kokoschka who created a life-size doll of the composer Alma Mahler after jealousy brought an end to their relationship, Marcel Duchamp who sculpted miniature casts of Maria Martins genitals after their illicit affair came to an end, and Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt whose relationship came to a horrific close when the dancer and costume designer shot Holdt and then herself.

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Dream Works: Kate MacGarry

On a humid London afternoon, the cold concrete space at Kate MacGarry offered some welcome refreshment… albeit with a sweating watermelon and various other surreal sculptures, installations and paintings which litter the gallery! The current ‘Dream Works’ exhibition is dedicated to four artists; two from the UK, one American and one Dutch who all explore ideas around surrealism, shape and form, and irrationality through a variety of mediums. The first of three concrete sculptures of oversized cucurbtia (google informs me this is a root vegetable akin to a squash!) is displayed on the floor as you enter, and a series of acrylic paintings by Luke Rudolf unified by their use of similar repetitive shapes in different colour palettes line the wall. As the corridor opens out into the gallery proper, a floor to ceiling wallpaper of a sweating watermelon and installation entitled ‘Bolobo Lamp’ both by British artist Jonathan Trayte dominate the space. These are joined by two prints of original watercolours by Dutch painter Madelon Vriesendorp and an oil on canvas work by American artist Jordan Kasey. Vriesdendorp’s piece ‘Flagrant Delit’ comes from an animation film made for French television and tells the story of the Statue of Liberty’s visit as a tourist to New York city, and her second work similarly offers an unusual take on city-scapes entitled ‘The City of the Captive Globe Revisited’. Jordan Kasey’s painting echoes the greys of the concrete sculptures and detail in both Rudolf and Vriesdendorp pieces, and zooms in on a small section of a staircase, making something mundane appear far more surreal. There is something overtly fun, arguably silly, and quietly challenging about all these works and I left the gallery smiling to myself as I re-emerged into the clammy city-scape of my own.

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Musée national Picasso: Paris

Having attempted to visit the Musée national Picasso-Paris on a couple of occasions but defeated by queues, it was third time lucky for me on a drizzly Saturday afternoon pottering around Le Marais! The museum is in the old Hotel Sale building dating back to the 17th century and listed by The Historic Monuments department. It opened as a museum in 1985 following extensive restoration, creating stunning modern gallery spaces whilst being sympathetic to the original architectural features and surviving furnishings. The collection comprises over 5,000 paintings, sculptures, ceramics, prints, engravings, illustrated books as well as an archive of newspaper articles and personal documents associated with the Spanish artist. The vast majority of the collection was acquired through two large donations from Picasso’s heirs, and is currently host to an additional body of work on loan from the Pompidou Centre as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations – offering a full spectrum of Picasso’s myriad styles and techniques. The lead exhibition focusses on the year 1932 during which Picasso dated every painting or sculpture he created, highlighting the strong biographical element in his work. This was also an interesting year with regards the artists’ personal life as many of the portraits painted depict variations of just two women; Dora Marr and Marie-Thérèse Walter, the former a photographer and surrealist artist who was Picasso’s mistress leading to the demise of his marriage to Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, and the latter a seventeen year old additional love interest of the forty-five year old artist! The variable and often contrasting portrayals of these two woman is a good analogy for the multifarious nature of Picasso as an artist, embracing innumerable different styles throughout his career. Ultimately that was what I took away from my visit to this museum – that Picasso was far more than the surrealist painter I was familiar with, but a far more complex and talented creator unafraid to provoke.

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Magritte: The Pompidou Centre, Paris

An iconic legacy of 1960’s French Prime Minister George Pompidou and architectural anomaly created from glass and steel with suspended escalators and covered in coloured pipes (blue for air, green for water, yellow for electricity and red for passageways), The Pompidou Centre continues to be a thriving arts hub in the centre of Paris. With a permanent museum collection boasting works by Matisse, Picasso, Chagall and Cezane to name a few and host to over thirty temporary exhibitions on its gallery floor each year, I was fortunate enough to visit last week and view their ‘Magritte’ retrospective. The eccentric building feels like an apt home for surrealist Belgian artist Rene Magritte and the hundred or so paintings, drawings and documents collated in this exhibition. His intense interest in philosophy is palpable and evident throughout; from his infamous ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ painting inspired by philosopher Michael Foucault’s 1973 publication of the same name to his constant use of motifs and symbolism. The exhibition is separated into five rooms each focusing on a different theme ranging from chance, to words and images, problems and solutions, the allegory of the cave, and curtains and illusionism. Stunning works including ‘The Philosopher’s Lamp’ featuring a portrait of a man whose nose morphs into a pipe alongside a candle melting in controlled swirling motions, ‘Hegel’s Holiday’ highlighting Margitte’s background in graphic design and advertising using the simple shape of an umbrella with a glass of water suspended at its apex, and my personal favourite ‘Decalomania’ showing the outline of a man in a suit and bowler hat against an optimistic background of a blue sky with clouds beautifully reflected next to the same mans’ silhouette yet this suit is transparent allowing you to see the sky through it. Ignore the daytime queues if you’re in Paris and head over in the evening to see this idiosyncratic show before it closes in January.

magritte2
Hegel’s Holiday
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Decalomania
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Another of Mgaritte’s simple but effective creations

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Francis West: Harris Lindsay at 67 Jermyn Street

On the lower-ground floor of Harris Lindsay at 67 Jermyn Street, you’ll discover the ‘Orion Stumbles’ exhibition featuring a selection of Francis West’s paintings on the legend of Orion alongside several of his Nocturnes. This gallery space curated by Megan Piper within an arts and antiquities dealership is an apt location for this exhibition focusing on the mythological figure of Orion – the blind hunter who walked across the sea to be healed by the sun God. Akin to all of West’s work (including his earlier drawings, pastels and paintings) the pieces in this show portray figurative forms in a state of metamorphosis. Whilst his Nocturnes are dark, dream-like, and at times bordering on the grotesque, his paintings on Orion in contrast use vivid purples and blues, and are far lighter and less oppressive. This disparity is made more poignant when you realise that West recently passed away in December 2015, and that the painting I was most drawn to is the final piece created by the artist entitled ‘Death of a Poet’. Despite consciously exploring the theme of death, the painting feels spirited and optimistic rather than fearful, with a shadowy allegorical figure of death in the bottom corner tempered by bird taking flight within the same scene. Physically, it is also larger and visibly more ambitious than the Nocturne canvases that surround it. I was moved to learn that this piece was painted from West’s deathbed with the support of his wife – and it felt not only rare, but fascinating and compelling to view an artwork from this psychological perspective and gain an insight into the optimism West had towards death at such a pivotal moment. I’d certainly suggest a visit to Piccadilly to catch the exhibition before it closes on 11th November.

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Electronic Superhighway 2016 – 1966: Whitechapel Gallery

The impact technology – and more specifically the internet – has had on art is certainly having a moment. Having already visited ‘Big Bang Data’ at Somerset House, this weekend I explored Whitechapel Gallery’s investigation into this phenomenon at their current ‘Electronic Superhighway’ exhibition. Comprising work from 70 artists over the past five decades, it combines painting, photography, sculpture, installation, immersive video, and interactive ipad and visitor controlled experiences. The ground floor gallery impressed me by not only raising interesting questions and commenting on this topic, but by the quality of the artworks themselves; Douglas Coupland’s ‘Deep Face’ combined black and white photographic portraits with brightly coloured abstract shapes reminiscent of pixels, targets and text redactions obscuring the facial features, as a criticism of Facebook’s development of facial recognition software employed with or without user consent. Likewise Aleksandra Domanovic’s series of five 3D laser cast models of the ‘Belgrade Hand’ each holding a symbol of emancipation or peace were beautiful sculptures outside their political or technological connotations. I also appreciated Oliver Laric’s photographic series ‘Versions (Missile Variations)’ which questions authenticity following a photoshopped image of four missiles being launched rather than one, released as a military hoax by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 2008. The upstairs galleries present a selection of tech-heavier artworks chosen by Rhizome (a New York based online organisation and archive of Net art) and E.A.T (another New York based interdisciplinary group looking at experiments in art and technology from 1960’s) which explore the evolution of hardware and software – whilst I enjoyed the nostalgic element of seeing 1980’s and ‘90s television screens and computers used in various installations, it was a little niche and IT focused for me. The final piece on display allows the exhibition to end on an artistic high, as Peter Sedgley’s ‘Corona’ uses kinetic lighting to captivatingly alter the mood and feel of his two paintings.

Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland’s ‘Deep Face’
Aleksandra
Aleksandra Domanovic’s ‘Belgrade Hand’
Missiles
Oliver Laric’s ‘Versions’
Peter Sedgley’s ‘Corona’

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