Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: November 2011

The integrity of curation: Cornelia Parker slaughterhouses the Government Art Collection at the Whitechapel

An upstairs room at the Whitechapel currently (till 4 December) houses Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain, a selection of 70 plus works from the Government Art Collection, curated by artist Cornelia Parker, exploder of sheds and installer of collected objects. I usually admire her stuff, but this has been a miscalculation.

Parker has famously declared that “I resurrect things that have been killed off”. In this case she has simply managed to kill them off. Staring at her random cull, she “hop[ed] for potential connections to present themselves”. Apparently they didn’t. So instead she settled for an arrangement based exclusively, and lazily, on colour. Yes, everything that is predominantly red is hung together, and so on. The result is an incoherent, postmodernist cabinet of curiosities that betrays a complete lack of respect for the works themselves. There are no captions, so the viewer is forced to identify pieces from the little booklet necessarily provided. Frames climb and crowd the walls, with some smaller items hung at a height well above any realistic viewing distance. But one suspects that we are not really invited or expected to take an interest in them, merely to bask in the spectrum of Cornelia Parker’s concept..

“It’s a great opportunity to recontextualise the works”, she claims. “Butting them up against each other … allows them to engage in new dialogues and for a new set of meanings – however tangential or oblique – to emerge.” Tangential or oblique aren’t in it. The works are simply decontextualized and left to die off. Penny Johnson, GAC Director, says that she had “a sense that [Parker’s] selection would result in an installation in its own right.” This suggests some disdain for the material in her keeping. Or maybe, to be charitable, just a loss of faith. The result is what happens when, surfing the fad of art-about-art, installation and curatorship become confused. Please leave other peoples’ artwork alone, Ms Parker, and stick with dust.

The one benefit, I suppose, is that the public gets to see things it owns that otherwise would stay behind closed doors at the High Commissioner’s Residence in Nairobi. A selection of official photos in the little booklet shows a few of the pieces in their more informative previous contexts, popping up behind Nigel Lawson or Gordon Brown like intrusive wedding guests. And it’s interesting to note where some are housed. Kitaj’s screenprint of the cover of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, his 1903 account of East End low life (Whitechapel included), apparently hangs in the offices of the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Now that is the sort of context that does indeed spark meaning. At the Consul-General’s Residence in New York sits a monumental Warhol screenprint of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom – monarchy commodified as celebrity; Her Maj re-colonised as Marilyn.

Of Parker’s selection, besides Grayson Perry’s intricately witty three part etching Print for a Politician, I most liked this easily ignorable Sickert oil of 1914, The Integrity of Belgium, which normally lives in the Cabinet Office. This strains eerily at our sense of the decades. A Belgian officer, representing the gallant little nation of 1914, peers through field glasses over the heads of a line of infantrymen. Given that Sickert was no nearer the battlefront than Camden Town, this must have been transcribed from a clipping of a newspaper photo, and anticipates by two decades the majority of his paintings produced this way. The result is a sort of post-impressionist pop art, though there is no sense that Sickert intended the title anything less than sincerely. Just when you think you have Sickert taped, he takes you by surprise. And he is closer to Bacon than we might assume.

The painting is a quote, an “echo”. Its slack camera ephemerality succeeds in a slightly off-kilter way, which is more than you can say for Wilhelm Sasnal’s anaemic attempts at something similar, to which the Whitechapel has recently made over two vast areas.

“Weirdly overwrought and hysterical”: Leslie Hurry and other neo-romantics at Tate Britain

At Tate Britain the Clore Gallery has been rebranded till next June, putting Turner within the broader context of The Romantics. (Details on the Tate site via the Collection Displays pages.) The whole thing is well devised and curated, and it’s good to see the odd Blake, Palmer or Fuseli in there among the straighter stuff. And as a little bonus, it all signs off with a separately curated roomful of 20thc neo-romantics.

Which, naturally, includes a bunch of Sutherlands (always a pleasure, especially the rich early etchings) and the regulation nod to Piper and Nash. But it’s also a joy to be able to inspect a totally gonzoid Michael Ayrton, a brooding John Craxton, and Keith Vaughan’s Cain and Abel, in which Vaughan appears to have stretched the scriptural record by having Cain slay his brother, Samson-like, with the jawbone of an ass. (A weensie bit strained, and not one of his best, but what the heck? Any Vaughan on show is a gift these days, and we should be grateful for this one.)

The relevant Tate web page also appears to promise John Minton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, but no such luck. A pity. Though it’s only a small space and you can’t have everything, it is all rather Sutherland-heavy, and a sample from these three would have made things more considered. But in compensation for the omission, tucked in at the end, there is This Extraordinary Year, 1945 by Leslie Hurry.

Leslie Hurry, 'Conflict', 1944

Oo-er. Blimey! Leslie who? The name wasn’t too familiar, but on the strength of this painting it is clearly one to conjure with. It’s not possible to link to images of this or any other of his six pieces in the Tate collection, thanks to copyright restrictions (boo!), but This Extraordinary Year is an extraordinary painting, in which a glowing and naked Liberty raises the red flag among a writhing, apocalyptic mass of figures that includes a pope and a politician trampled under the revolutionary surge. Sound stuff!

Available information on Hurry seems limited, though a quick google will give an idea of his style. There is no mention of him in Remy’s irritatingly doctrinaire Surrealism in Britain, though he explored and exhibited automatic drawing, was tagged an “ultra-surrealist”, and was related to the painter John Armstrong (John Hurry Armstrong), whom for that matter Remy also writes off as less than surrealist. The last significant show of his work seems to have been in the ‘eighties. There is a nice self portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, but only one oil, Dialectic No 2, 1940, is to be found on the BBC Your Paintings site. In this the rather geometric figures look a bit Wyndham Lewis, even a bit Merlyn Evans. Most other pieces appear much more fluid. Many surviving works are designs for the theatre and ballet, though to my mind these are of lesser interest. He was also a friend of Mervyn Peake.

In The Spirit of Place, Malcolm Yorke quickly disposes of Hurry as “weirdly overwrought and hysterical”. What’s so wrong with that? Once could say the same of (for instance) the once derided but very wonderful Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, who these days have pukka status. And as British surrealists go, I’d rather take one Hurry than any number of those dry, clunky, repressed pastiches of Ernst by the amateurish and ludicrously over-rated Conroy Maddox.

Nicholas Tromans on Richard Dadd

Let’s take a moment to salute Tate Publishing‘s new book on mad-as-a-hatter, parricidal fairy-painter Richard Dadd, by Nicholas Tromans, 19th century and orientalism specialist. Salute, that is, in the sense that anything on Dadd is good news.

And this is a nice big book, with some beautifully reproduced paintings. Though I could have done with a few more, to be honest, instead of the not-so-helpful ground plans of Broadmoor etc. Tromans is big on the context of the asylum system, on which he has invested much research, but maybe a little light on analysis of Dadd’s work itself.

But let’s not be grumpy. I would have been overjoyed to cough up the required £25 simply for the full page reproduction of Dadd’s Mother and Child of 1860, which I don’t recall seeing before. This mesmerising, hallucinatory oil painting is astonishing for its explicit Victorian inculturation of the image of Our Lady with Child. (As opposed to the implicit contextualisation of, say, Ford Madox-Brown’s slightly earlier Pretty Baa-Lambs.) Why the fluffed-up blackbird at the left and the distant man-of-war? Who cares? It’s a total masterpiece.

In praise of Chas Laborde

Mention of Chas (Charles) Laborde in the context of Edward Burra (previous post) gives an excuse to praise the recent book on Laborde – cartoonist, illustrator, artist, printmaker, flaneur, Anglophile, people-watcher and man-in-the-crowd – by Emmanuel Pollaud-Dulian, who runs the excellent Laborde website here. This is a highly acceptable little book, with well over 100 pages crowded with wonderful colour pics, and a readable and informative text (in French).

'A Busy Street, Paris' 1929

Rightly, it skips over the earliest cartoon years and focuses on the city studies – Paris, London, New York, Moscow, Madrid and Berlin. The Spanish Civil War images were a revelation to me, though the relative fuzziness of the lithograph does not best suit Laborde, who was at his most astounding, in my humble opinion, when employing the taut, slender, etched line. Anyway, the book is available for just 19 euro’s, or £15 odd on Amazon UK. Meanwhile, here’s my own small Laborde etching, of which I’m very fond.

It’s extraordinary how immersion in Laborde’s images shapes reality. Two minutes on the London underground and you’re in the Labordean universe – the subtle arcs of the edge of an arm or a leg, the glance over the shoulder, the criss-crossing figures in all the eccentric variations of the human form. Same places, same people, just eighty years on.