Morris and Constructivism

I‘d walked past Two Temple Place on the Victoria Embankment a few times and had noticed it’s elaborate gold weathervane, so when I saw that it had opened with an exhibition of works by William Morris and Burne Jones, I decided to visit. Inside, the building centers around a courtyard surmounted with a glass ceiling decorated with heraldic motifs in stained glass. The wooden staircase beneath is lined with carved figures on its balustrade while a great hall on the upper floor has gilded frieze of historical figures and a large stained glass window showing an incongruous Alpine scene that does not match the actual view over the Thames to any appreciable extent.

The actual exhibition is small but interesting enough, ranging from large tapestries, tiling of fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella as well as a series of folk depictions of the seasons (except a woman burning a set of Valentine’s letters in February and a Janus figure in January), stained glass of Arthurian scenes and printings from their edition of the Icelandic sagas.

A few weeks later, I’m back in London for early Soviet architecture exhibition at the Royal Academy. Dense fog lingers as I ride on the train and is then dispelled by bright sunshine in London; only for the fog to return when I leave later. A large model of Tatlin’s Tower takes up the courtyard, rather resembling the scaffolding for a helter-skelter. Inside the exhibition features from works by Rodchenko and Popova that were intended to highlight overlaps between painting and architecture but it mostly concentrates on photographs of constructivist architecture. It’s an odd mixture of a revolutionary intent to build a new Soviet man with, as Stalin recognised, a sense of elitism. These buildings were modelled on European modernism (or built by Europeans like Le Corbusier and Mendelssohn) and built by peasant workforces with relatively primitive materials. Although intended for use as housing and worker’s clubs, they must have been utterly mystifying to its intended occupants, hence one factory facing towards Moscow with a Palladian exterior and another facing away with a modernist exterior. To a large extent, the exhibition plays off these tensions, contrasting pictures of the buildings in their original incarnations as emblems of a gleaming future with recent photos of their present dilapidation. In this sense, urban decay is this dominant theme, as if we were looking at Battersea Power Station of the ruins of Detroit.

The following week and I’m back again at the Tate, for its exhibition on John Martin. As an artist, Martin is as much defined by idiosyncrasy as Gandy or Dadd, or if we compare him to someone like Chris Foss, he emerges as a specialist in special effects more than a conventional artist (the exhibition includes a Glenn Brown painting that hybridises Martin with a Martian setting). Actually, many of the paintings are conventional enough and reminiscent of Constable more than anyone else, as with his paintings of Richmond and Twickenham; in spite of his paintings of ruined castles, his choices don’t suggest the romantic sensibility denoted by his more famous works. The brushwork is also at odds with the detail in Constable; looking at the panoramas it becomes difficult to discern whether one thickly applied daub of oil represents branches or rock formations. Martin’s most famous works are all impressionistic in character, but he can never bring himself to abandon realism in the way Turner could; the destroyed cities in his paintings are always shown with immaculate attention to historical and architectural detail; the exhibition even displays the keys he gave out to accompany them. Onto his most famous works then. They essentially represent variations on a single theme of the apocalypse; irrespective of whether the subject is historical (Pompei), sometimes mythical (Ovid and Syrinx, in one odd set of paintings that show Claude style landscapes with a brutal interlude in the form of two small figures; Auden probably would have liked that touch) or Biblical, as with his scores of drawings of Belshazzar’s Feast or the last Judgement. His Biblical themes seem a little odd; the interest in the architecture suggests a somewhat pagan mentality (not to mention his Iguanodon illustrations for a geology book) but the depiction of the Last Judgement recalls Blake or Dadd more than any conventional religious painter. One does wonder if Martin’s metier should not have been set design or special effects for Hollywood films.

Finally, the Tate are also running a retrospective of Gerhard Richter’s work. I often wonder about whether my tastes aren’t too antediluvian, as I haven’t been to many exhibitions from living artists (David Hockney is the only other that comes to mind). As my knowledge of Richter is relatively slight the exhibition comes as something of a pleasant surprise. If an artist like Rothko counts as a fox, then Richter is something unusual in the visual arts; a hedgehog. His work encapsulates a set of techniques that revolve around different methods of de familiarisation. The early work draws on the realism of photographs, only to disturb that realism by blurring the paint. Some of the later paintings initially looks like nineteenth century paintings of country scenes, but you realise upon close examination that they, or the portraits that show a debt to Vermeer, wouldn’t have been possible with photography in the way it shows the distribution of light rather than the nineteenth century tendency towards hyper-realism. Conversely, although the abstract works often recall Rothko or Malevich, the artist that perhaps should be named here is Hammershoi, simply for the recurrent dwelling on subtle shades of grey. In some, colour is completely replaced by texture as the theme of the painting, with lines of the brushwork being the only distinct feature. In others, scenes of bombed cites or mountain ranges become realist when viewed from a distance but dissolve into abstraction when one steps up close to them. Some subjects are deliberately chosen to blur the line between realism and abstraction, like the choice of clouds. When colour is included, it is plotted in the manner of a Pantone palette or emerges in an uncontrollable burst that resembles Kandinsky or Pollock, while the use of a squeegee to scrape away at the surface of the oil recalls Miro. The chosen subject matter of his works is as variable as its style; German bombers and Baader Meinhof gang on the one hand, versus symbols like skulls or simple objects like chairs and toilet rolls. Portraits and landscapes both appear that recall both Corot and Friedrich.

The Tate is also playing a host to Tacita Dean’s Film, a screening that casts the turbine hall into cinematic darkness. It’s odd watching people standing in front of the screen and becoming silhouettes that form part of the work. It amounts to a series of images rather than a narrative, that echoes Dali in places (images like eggs and eyes) and Tarkovsky in its dwelling on photographic detail, like trees.

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