Saturday morning, with the sun shining despite forecasts of day-long rain, I went along to Nottingham Contemporary to see their current exhibition, Somewhat Abstract, a selection of work from the Arts Council Collection, which, to my pleasant surprise, included, in the words of curator Alex Farquharson …
… many examples of figurative art on the verge of abstraction, as well as art that isn’t abstract but that could not have been made without knowledge of it.
So, in Gallery 2, for instance, alongside the casts of Rachel Whiteread and the abstract canvasses of Prunella Clough, there is work by Sickert and Bomberg, as well as Frank Auerbach – one of his marvellous Primrose Hill paintings – and a beautiful – and truthful – little etching of Lucien Freud.
And also in this gallery is the most moving and disturbing work in the whole exhibition, Gustav Metzger’s To Crawl Into – Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938. One of Metzger’s Historic Photographs series, in which photographs of historic events, often connected to the Holocaust, are greatly enlarged and then covered, usually by a cloth, which the viewer is encouraged to remove or crawl beneath, slowly revealing the image underneath.
The principal component of this work is a press photograph, taken shortly after Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany in March 1938, that depicts Jewish men, women and children being forced to wash the streets of Vienna as their fellow citizens look on. The photograph has been enlarged to over thirteen square metres – rendering the figures larger than life-size – and is displayed on the floor, covered with a cotton sheet. In order to see it, the viewer is required to crawl on their hands and knees beneath the sheet, mimicking the actions of the Jewish subjects, while the size and proximity of the image makes it impossible to apprehend as a whole.
Feeling too venerable to get down on my belly and crawl, with the help of one of attendants I slowly peeled the cloth down and away.