Wednesday, 30 June 2010

A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War by David Boyd Haycock

For anyone with even a vague interest in 20th century British art and history this is an absolute must read. David Boyd Haycock draws on the intense period of artistic development, centred around the Slade, in London before the Great War in 1914. It was a period of great innovation, not only in the visual arts but also in literature, poetry and theatre. The book focuses on five young artists from this period, Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson and Dora Carrington. Their artistic progression, youthful angst, love, bohemian fashion, relationships, influences and ambition are explored alongside glimpses of other notable 20th century figures who surrounded them including Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Walter Sickert, Ezra Pound, Rupert Brooke and D.H Lawrence, to name just a few. These brilliant young artists who evolved from the Slade’s second period of a ‘crisis of brilliance’ (the first included Augustus John and Percy Wyndham Lewis) went on to become part of the Futurists, the Vorticists, the periphery of the Bloomsbury Group and the Camden Town Group. Haycock deftly plunges into their world with absorbing detail, from the shock of the first Impressionist Exhibition organised by Roger Fry in 1910, to the suffragette movement and the increasing liberalisation of London to the horror of the First World War and subsequent tragedies. This period in British art is often overlooked or dominated by the Bloomsbury Group because the perpetuating British art movement from that century in the international mind are the over-hyped YBAs. In fact British art in the 20th century is often far more fascinating and this captivating book proves it.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Support Steve McQueen’s 'Queen and Country' stamp campaign!

Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, Turner prize-winning British artist Steve McQueen was Iraq’s official war artist. Whilst embedded with the army in Iraq McQueen initially wanted to make a documentary of his time there but this plan was thwarted by the powers that be. McQueen subsequently created 'Queen and Country', an homage to those servicemen and women who lost their lives in the conflict. The work consists of sheets of stamps depicting head shots of each person and serves as not only as a poignant reminder of the lives lost in such a (unjust) war but also commemorates their bravery and sacrifice. It raises questions of choice, war, imperialisation, remembrance and also about representations of contemporary conflict.

McQueen has battled tirelessly for these stamps to be made official but the Royal Mail has stubbornly resisted (no doubt influenced by the last government who were presumably trying to shove the Iraq skeleton into its vast collection before scampering into the night after the election) but Iraq is certainly still fresh in many minds and should not be forgotten. We have now been in a state of war for nearly 10 years, an astonishing state of events. The public for one reason or another are unusually sheltered from the reality of war (despite the fact that the internet makes it more accessible than any other, just think of Thomas Hirschhorn’s ‘The Incommensurable Banner’ 2007 which uses gruesome pictures from the internet) as not only is it occurring over 6,000 miles away but life continues as usual. Too often, military deaths are relegated to the back pages.

Show your support and sign the petition to Royal Mail to create the commemorative stamps:

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Instead of the wearisome world cup why don’t you…

View: Francis Alys, A Story of Deception @ Tate Modern

Wander: Along the river by the Southbank Centre

Read: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Watch: Wimbledon – (1) Roger Federer (Swi) vs. Ilija Bozoljac (Ser)

Monday, 21 June 2010

Conservative vs Coalition Arts?

This is a question that pervades the minds of those in the arts at the moment. Can there be Conservative arts, is it not an oxymoron given their track record? How supportive will the new government be of the arts and what will the actual cuts mean to this valuable sector as a whole? I think it has to be acknowledged that any government in power at the present time, regardless of party politics, would be faced with the unenviable task of imposing severe cuts and sadly the arts is often the first in line. We have already seen Arts Council England being told to prepare for a £19m cut but what is the reality of Conservative-led arts and should we fear it?

The new coalition Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is a golden boy of the Conservative Party, and it has to be said, probably the most good looking minister in the cabinet (hardly much competition there though). He has the classic Tory background but is really rather a closet liberal. Labour never quite got it right with their Culture Secretaries over the years (the only one I can vaguely remember is Chris Smith and even then only that he was grey haired and bespectacled). Hunt has a real chance, to not only make a difference but to be remembered, particularly if he absorbs the Liberal Democrat arts manifesto within his own party’s agenda and manages to cement London's reputation as the centre of the art world during the Oylmpics in 2012. The Conservative manifesto was noticeably lacking when it came to the arts (everyone was more distracted by what colour ties the leaders were wearing for the debates) but Hunt has strong long-term ideas. The main two being, to reform Lottery funding in order to make it more beneficial to the arts, and to encourage more philanthropy. To strengthen his ambitions he needs to take note of the Liberal Democrats, who typical to form, laid out a broad arts policy, including to:

- Introduce a cabinet committee on creativity responsible for securing cross-departmental support and increased levels of joint working, so that creative industries contribute to wider policy objectives.
- Review the points-based visa system to ensure that it doesn’t discriminate against legitimate visiting artists and performers in order to encourage cultural exchange.
- Give more political recognition to individuals and companies who give generously to the arts on a national scale.
- Introduce a new “Paid Internship” enabling hundreds of thousands of young people to work for up to three months with any employer, without cost to the business.

Last week Arts Council England decided where their £19m cut would fall and announced a 0.5% funding cut for each of the 880 frontline arts organisations it regularly gives money to - the small organisations will of course suffer but the cuts are far smaller than had been feared and for a time, will silence the sceptics. ACE also has the added advantage of being able to draw on its £18m reserves. But one must remember that in times of hardship, recession and bleakness some of the best art is produced (YBAs, think Emin’s bed and Damien’s shark) spurred on by some innovative philanthropists (think Saatchi). So, instead of moaning about this unavoidable recession and inevitable art cuts we should look forward to the diversity that will emerge from within its depths and the new generation of philanthropists who will want to support the arts, in conjunction with a coherent coalition government arts policy which one hopes will materialise.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Welcome to the mad house...

The Barbican Art Gallery’s new summer exhibition, The Surreal House, promises just this: a mad, eccentric, mysterious, dream-like dwelling within the gallery space that accommodates works stressing the home and particularly, architecture in relation to Surrealism. Imagine an insane inverted Ikea house. Lurking within the immense abode’s labyrinth of chambers, designed by the award-winning architects Carmody Groarke, are works from a range of Surrealists (and their precursors), architects and contemporary artists who have been inspired by the movement. As the accompanying booklet states, you’ll find in this exhibition that “art imagines the house, film ‘performs’ the house and architecture builds the house.” A very neat summary indeed.

Don’t let the advertising featuring a deathly dull Dali fool you into thinking this is a typical Surrealist show. It exposes work of the over-looked, the forgotten and the contemporary artists who continue the Surrealist legacy. Most notable amongst these are wonderful pieces by the late Louise Bourgeois, a rather timely homage. Then one comes to a set of 13 black and white photographs by the seldom-seen Francesca Woodman with themes of appearance and disappearance, via Rebecca Horn’s startling 'Concert for Anarchy' (1990), an upside down piano where the keys theatrically fall in and out creating eerie sounds throughout the gallery. Noble + Webster’s 'Metal Fucking Rats' (2006) perfectly depicts the humorous goings on in this house, and there are beautiful ceramic sculptures by Rachel Kneebone, which on close inspection, are entangled, sensual, warped ceramic body parts epitomising the themed room, ‘Mad Love’. The fantastically daring house structure created by Carmody Groarke, manages to escape the clutches of the usual modernist trappings of the white box and blocks up some of the gallery’s ugly concrete walls, resulting in a refreshing setting for such a broad range of works and themes. From the mischievous Marcel Duchamp nipple ‘door bell’, 'Priere de Toucher' (1947) to Louise Bourgeois’ 'No Exit' (1989) featuring stairs that go to nowhere, to the final scene of the burning house in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film 'The Sacrifice' (1986), the viewer is taken on a journey of the bizarre, and the amusing, through winding rooms, high ceilings and chambers full to the brim of the unusually uncanny.

There is sadly, however, a notable lack of British Surrealists, except for Christopher Wood (where are Eileen Agar and the indubitable Leonora Carrington?), and perhaps a general lack of cohesion to the exhibition possibly due to the fact that it is simply so enormous. Whilst the link between Surrealism and architecture is undoubtedly illustrated there does appear to be a separation between the art and architecture on show which at times seems to create two separate exhibitions. Perhaps it would have been more relevant to include further architectural references within the context of the surreal house built in the gallery to reinforce the theory behind the entire show. However, the architectural component certainly results in an often under-estimated interpretation of Surrealism including pieces by John Hejduk, Le Corbusier and intriguingly Ferdinand Cheval who turned his dream home into reality. The Barbican Art Gallery has always provided a challenging space for its curators, and they have astutely risen to this challenge by creating a house within, emphasising the nature of Surrealism. It is certainly a mad house, this surreal house, and well worth seeing. God knows what Kevin McCloud and Sarah Beeny would make of it but I suspect that for once, they might be lost for words.

The Surreal House, Barbican Art Gallery, 10th June – 12th September 2010
Tickets: £10 (concessions £8)