The Radical Eye

On a rare sunny day in early December, I head into London to see the Tate’s exhibition of modernist photography. The first room is dominated by Man Ray’s portraits, contrasting his erotic depictions of Kiki de Montparnasse with Brassai’s depiction of gay nightlife. Later sections dwell on the male body more closely in photos by Lynes, Maar, Kertesz and Drtikol. This section is perhaps also noteworthy for the theme of masks in photos by Sougez, Quigley and Steichen. The next section is dedicated to photographic experimentalism; montages by Bayer and Breitenbach, solarised Man Ray photographs. Then, it moves onto documentary; photos by depression America in the twenties by Adams, Evans and Lange. The penultimate section dwells on perspectives; Rodchenko’s photo of the Shukhov tower and Bourke White’s photos of electricity pylons,the Chrysler Building and the Washington Bridge. The last section features abstracts by Funke and Man Ray again.

I also visit the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at the same gallery. The main image that sticks in my mind  is a collage showing Bobby Kennedy, Janis Joplin and the body of Martin Luther King; I start to wonder whether Rauschenberg  formed part of the same counter-culture as Joplin or was parasitic upon it. A lot of the propositional aspects of his work stem from the photographs and objects he re-uses in them, while much of his approach to art, especially given his various scientific collaborations, was essentially technocratic, focused on formalistic experimentation. Each section in the exhibition seems an exercise in self-reinvention; the first room dwells on his cyanotypes and Malevich style painting of solid blocks of white and black. The next dwells on his use of collage and real objects in the red paintings and the combines and the increased use of animated objects like alarm clocks, lights and radios. The next covers his use of transfer drawings and silkscreens before showing  footage of his dance collaborations . The next section of technological collaborations is probably the most bizarre, with ‘Mud Muse’ (complete with a sign warning that the mud geysers may splash clothing) probably counting as the strangest thing I’ve seen in a museum.

Some of the pieces I like; boxes filled with surreal objects in imitation of reliquaries (I’m more reminded of Joesph Cornell), a square filled with thickly and coarsely layered gold leaf, his transfer rendition of Dante’s inferno with riot police replacing demons and astronauts replacing angels, the hoarfrost transfer drawing,  the ‘glut’ sculptures of twisted metal made from gas station signs and car parts to showcase the ruin of greed during the oil crisis and lastly a silkscree transfer of his photographs onto aluminium. The most famous piece is obviously ‘Monogram’ – it’s reasonable to conclude that I am unlikely to ever see a piece labelled ‘Oil painted onto a taxidermied Angora Goat’ again.

The following weekend, I visit Dulwich Picture Gallery. When I’d thought of the name van ve Velde  I’d mostly think of maritime paintings by Willem van de Velde, of which the gallery includes a couple. The gallery’s exhibition of paintings by his son Adriaen, dwells instead on landscapes and is more reminiscent of someone like Ruisdael or Constable than the work of his father or brother. Some beach scenes occupy the first room but the focus is on the figures not the landscape. The exhibition feels rather padded, with rather too many sketches and drawings showing his working method and too few paintings.  The highlights are a portrait of a family (erroneously once thought to show Velde himself) staring intently out of the frame while walking in the countryside and a set of ice skating scenes.

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