Monday, 7 September 2009

London reviews: Per Kirkeby, Futurism and Richard Long at Tate, BP Portrait Competition and arctic photos at Canada House

For me, there were two reasons to go to the Per Kirkeby retrospective at Tate Modern. One was a chance to see the work of one of Denmark's most important artists, including some of his watercolour sketches of Greenland, where I travelled myself exactly a year ago. The other, pedestrian, penny-pinching reason, was to make more use of my Tate membership.

I wasn't prepared for the breadth of the work, from art school collages to pop art of his early career, to abstracts, sculptures, and a fascinating series of books he has published of both his own work, and monographs of artists who influenced him. The one of Michelangelo, in which his own work is juxtaposed with that of the master's, clearly shows the relationship between the two.

The Greenland sketches did not disappoint, either, coming as they did after my impromptu visit to 'The Accessible Arctic', Canada House's fine exhibit of Canadian Geographic photographs of the Canadian arctic, mostly in colour (and there's a great arctic film season coming up there in September/October!) Here I went through airport-style security (when trying to switch on my digital camera I had to confess to the attendant that my batteries had run down. After that he didn't look too concerned about me, correctly assuming that I was far to disorganised to be plotting some kind of a heist.) Even better was the display deep in the bowels of the ground floor, a magnificent room with columns and ornate furnishings and a full wall mirror (possibly two way, I mused, as two small girls pulled faces and showed off their dresses in front of it), which contained glorious colour enlargements of Robert VanWaarden's documentation of the the British Council's 2008 Cape Farewell project. This involved a group of high school students chosen from many countries, journeying by Soviet cruiser MV Academik Shokalskiy from Iceland to East Greenland, passing me in West Greenland when I was in Narsarssuaq / Nanortalik (could they have been the 'scientists' who were spending a couple of days up the fjord? according to Nils at the tourist office?) and on to Baffin Island in northeast Canada. Anyway it looked a tremendous experience, as the youth dashing bare chested into Baffin Bay seemed to symbolise. The photographs brought my own Greenland trip back to me, so my imagination was able to finish Per Kirkeby's wonderfully unfinished sketches, the wall of rock and water that move so far across the page and then stop, leaving a white void. The detail with which he renders mountains and morraines bely his early career as a geology PhD. He has been going to Greenland since the late 1950's when he was completing this postgraduate studies, and says that he doesn't feel right in himself if once a year he doesn't make a trip to Greenland, Iceland or the Faroe Islands. The north Atlantic / Arctic regions certainly have that pull. And the colours show up in his abstract or semi abstract work: the jewel blues and emerald greens that have a tawny, mossy quality; the swirl of grey-green like a fog descending on a fjord, the brilliant mustard yellows and hot pinks of the summer bloom. All these are in the wonderful abstracts with titles such as 'The Northernmost House', and even in one of the large abstracts which I must find the title of, which has obvious points of comparison in the palette and overall effect, if not the linear quality of the markmaking, to Monet's famous waterlilies at Giverny (which I had recently seen some of at the National Gallery).

It was an eventful couple of days, gallery-wise, for me, Emerging from the Per Kirkeby exhibition, Tate membership card in hand, it was inevitable, after browsing samples of his publishing oeuvre in the cafe area, that I should go straight into the Futurism exhibition. Now I must say that fans of Futurism will be delighted to see so many works from so many countries assembled in one place. That said, I must confess myself not to be a particular fan of Futurism, nor did this exhibition change my mind. It is hard to say whether my reaction would have been different if it hadn't been towards the end of two and a half days of intense art digestion. But given my more positive reaction to the National Portrait Gallery later the same evening, I suspect not.

Not to say that individual works did not delight, for examples Marcel Duchamp's chess players, and his tiny painting on panel of a coffee grinder in assembly-sheet form, made for a present for his brother to hang in the kitchen. Or Picasso's Head of a Woman (Fernande), vaunted as the first Cubist sculpture, from 1909. And here, in admiring the chunky simplification of the head, I came to one fundamental problem I have with Futurism: I just don't like cubism. I think I've always had a problem with cubism - I think there are a lot of examples of it, poorly done, and more importantly, I think the premise of breaking the subject into different planes never quite achieves the sense of looking at the thing simultaneously form/from different views. Instead of showing a unity of simultaneous viewpoints, to me the results usually look cluttered. There are exceptions of course, some of the better Piassos, or Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (not in this exhibition), but that is my general opinion. However, it must be said that the sense of motion conveyed by Umberto Boccioni's two series of three paintings, States of Mind (1911) about emotions of people on a rail platform / those who are going/ those who are staying, was fantastic, perhaps more so in the loose studies than in the more finished versions, with their increased angularity (shades of cubism again?) and incorporation of greater detail such as numbers in that futurist font.

For this exhibition it was extremely important to read the eight foot high manifesto panels at the start, and again in the room with books, photos and ephemera (n.b.: content of this last link may be blocked by zealous web-watchers). Here another detail was well observed: the glass cases displaying books etc. were set at a forty-five degree angle to the walls, and the exhibits were at a forty-five degree angle to the cases, which were arranged in a zig zag - a very futurist layout for an exhibition!

I mentioned about the National Portrait Gallery. Thanks to late opening Thursdays, I managed to pop in to see the BP Portrait Award 2009 and BP Travel Award 2008. The latter was, as last year, the most exciting thing for me in the exhibition. Emmanouil Bitsakis has travelled to the Uigar region in the far North West of China, taking with him his ubiquitous small notebooks, in which he incessantly records his thoughts, which generally take the form of meticulously drawings of people, scenes, buildings, and animals, in immaculate biro. Sometimes a portrait is juxtaposed with a Maoist monument, or tiny illustrations of animals flank the endless list of Uigar phrases, pronunciations and English or Greek translations he made. I wondered how long he was over there to learn so much of the complex grammar. I suppose that even for a short visit, it would be essential to learn as much as possible. It also made me wonder how long it would take, to produce a page of this kind of dense material. A book on Emmanouil Bitsakis accompanying the exhibition states that he is quietly observant, almost invisible as he unobtrusively sketches the people round him. Invisible perhaps in his native Greece, but how invisible in a place where foreigners stand out like a sore thumb, where children run chanting, 'Farang! Gaijin!' or the local equivalent, to strangers? But perhaps I am making assumptions; Bitsakis shaves his head, from his self portraits, and if wearing local attire, or a dark Mao suit, he might well be invisible, at least from the back.

The sketches were presented with a couple of the notebooks laid open, in the inevitable glass case, Bitsakis insists, according to the book, that his drawings are never removed from the notebooks for any reason. A key ring with detachable card fobs (such as I had recently seen for sale at Heaton Cooper Studios in Grasmere) did not suffer this restriction, so an array of tiny drawings on card were fanned out and spread round. These depicted musical instruments and other suitably oblong subject matter. Each was meticulously labelled and numbered in a tiny hand. In order to display more of the two notebooks, a slide show was playing on a small screen. Enlarged, each page was only around A5 (half US letter paper size), the original size being more like B6. While watching the pages on a five minute loop (and one might well want to watch all the way through more than once), the visitor was invited to listen on (only one set of!) headphones to delightful excerpts from Uigar traditional music.

The outcome of the notebooks was a series of appropriately tiny portraits painted in oil on tiny tiles / patchwork squares of canvas, the detailed heads nearly filling the frame, with background details crammed not just into the remaining space but into the same perspective plane as the main subject, giving a flattened effect more reminiscent of the Russian Orthodox icon than the telephoto lens. I found these unfailingly delightful: while others in the exhibition may have painted perspective more accurately, or given the glossy surfaces mimicking liquid digital colour, these simple flattened colours, with their flattened bu exquisite detail, spoke something of a culture, and the imagery of a culture, unimaginably removed form our own and set (partly), it seems, in another era. And yet the familiar and the modern are both there: the small child juxtaposed against the industrial progress of a city: the Old Man (my favourite) shoved off centre by a collection of clucking chickens bursting over one another, one tiny perfectly rendered beak curving round the side of the panel; the young man confronting us head on, wearing modern clothes but not completely blocking out the past, represented by a temple oozing up to the sides of the frame, an exaggeration of an idea of a head juxtaposed onto the lower part of a temple, seen in the notebooks. (These works have a similar feeling to the tiny portraits on copper by Eloiza Mills.)

For me this was the highlight of the BP exhibition, and it got my vote for People's Choice (even though not voting for the 2009 portraits may have disqualified me from the competition to win Daler-Rowney materials). My second and third choices, by the way, were
Broken Heart by Donald Macdonald, the heart surgery scar on his future father-in-law's chest echoed by occasional patches of rough overworking to the oil? surface, including a blue line bleeding into the lower left edge of the canvas, and Black Mirror by the Israeli artist David Nipo, a moody sfumato study that is the oils equivalent of a mezzotint, the merest highlights of cheeks and chin emerging from an all-enveloping blackness.

Again this year I was looking for departures from the photorealist style that seems to dominate portraiture; this year, when I found it, it often seemed to signal a drop in quality, with a few other exceptions than those cited above.

Afterwards there was time for a brief foray into the main collection (my first!). Up the grand escalator I went, seeing no similar conveyance to bring me back down, I was trusting that I wasn't on a one-way journey into an eternity surrounded by Tudor miniatures, not exactly what I had planned for myself. I just had time to wander through the eighteenth century, and said hello again to Hogarth, at his easel, wigless, bald, and by the relaxed outstretching of a stockinged leg, clearly enjoying himself while painting the comic muse (having only that morning seen him, and his dog, strapped to a cart loaded with DIY goodies that I assume were conservation/restoration materials, and unceremoniously wheeled away through Tate Britain, much to the consternation of the tall white-haired lady guide: 'Oh, they're taking him away! I do so like to show him to people!') Without pausing to detail the National Portrait Gallery room currently devoted to engravings of Samuel Johnson and his circle, I must pursue this easy link back to the first visit I made that day, to Tate Britain, to see a little of Bacon, Auerbach, Bloomsbury and Blake, before walking the line into the Richard Long exhibition. This retrospective features so many walks, recorded in photographs and enormous text panels enlarged on the wall, that I began to wonder if he had ever been home since the 1970s. It would certainly have taken me that long to have gone distances of hundreds of miles that he trips through in a few days, sometimes walking continuously for twenty-four hours. The large room with seven or eight of his stone sculptures on the floor was striking, with sun pouring in through the skylights. (Incidentally, there is another less spectacularly displayed Richard Long floor stone sculpture on show at Haunch of Venison.) Two walls were also painted with natural materials from specific geographic location; these were quite striking but are presumably about to be destroyed when the exhibition is taken down. And the photographs, as always, are as much documents as works of art, sometimes more so as the grain of colour films he used in the 1980s do not enlarge particularly well, certainly not to the large sizes currently favoured by galleries displaying art photography at the moment. There were also some maps. In the whole, I felt like most of the experience of the walks is being missed. Perhaps that is part of the point; perhaps we are supposed to fill in the blanks ourselves. Perhaps we are being spared the kind of 'my boots hurt' narrative that tends to dominate autobiographical travel writing. Perhaps the texts on the wall work better as poems than as works of art. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to see a series of photographs representing a single walk, rather than one photograph representing each walk. Of course each photograph was representing one of Long's site-specific, impermanent works of art, the traces of footprints across sand or snow, arrangements of stones or sticks. Long began his work long before constant documentation of digital photography and blogging. What, then, did he think he was doing by making circular walks or cycle rides, that would be largely unrecorded and unobserved, represented by lines drawn on a map, hung on a wall? Was he actually able to keep to these shapes, or did the terrain dictate changes? I found the idea of so many walks appealing, but couldn't help thinking that my own pace and means of documentation would have been very different. I did, however, draw inspiration from the room at the side (free entry, as opposed to the main exhibition), which displayed dozens of his publications: books, posters, and postcards advertising exhibitions since the 1960s, accompanied by a video. Here, I thought, might be another way to respond to a walk, one which Long has himself so studiously ignored.

Richard Long has just closed at Tate Britain, but continues at Haunch of Venison, London.

Per Kirkeby has just closed at Tate Britain, but the Futurism continues there until 20 September.

The BP Portrait Award 2009 and the BP Travel Award 2008 continue at the National Portrait Gallery until 20 September, and Samuel Johnson & friends continue there until a date I cannot specify at this time...

'The Accessible Arctic' exhibition continues at Canada House near Trafalgar Square until 30 October 2009, and the films continue there on Tuesdays until 20 October. A related exhibition, 'The Northwest Passage – an Arctic Obsession', runs at the National Maritime Museum until 3 January 2010. Read about the Cape Farewell project at

Please vote for me to become the official blogger / artist for an expedition to the North Pole!


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