Art Chronicles: Mooching Around Tate Britain

Back down in London after a pleasant, eventful and stormy weekend amongst the nation’s crime writers at Theakston’s International Crime Festival in Harrogate – (Sorry, Val McDermid and doubtless others – I should move that apostrophe to the other side of the final S) – and what was I going to with my first morning back in the capital? As it happened, other matters took me out Pimlico way and thus it was more or less decided for me … a visit, far from unusual, to Tate Britain. I was there close enough to opening time to be the first one up the spiral staircase to the newly elevated Members’ Room and the barista’s first flat white of the day, which I enjoyed in peace and tranquility until a fellow member chose to park herself near me and conduct a mobile phone conversation with a presumably deaf friend, detailing the problems, that morning, of changing trains at Wimbledon.

Stopping only to pick up a complaints form, I hightailed it down to the main floor where my eye was caught, quite by chance, by the elongated and superbly controlled explosion of red that is Anthony Caro’s Early One Morning from 1962.

Early One Morning 1962 by Sir Anthony Caro born 1924

‘Early One Morning’ Anthony Caro

Made from steel and aluminium and marking a shift in Caro’s work away from more realistic forms towards abstraction and the strong, flat single colours favoured by the American Abstract Expressionists, it carries with it, nonetheless, echoes of Henry Moore and his sculptures of mother and child.

And this, of course, is one of  the marvels of Tate Britain as it is now hung, step into one of the rooms and an area of British art at a particular period surrounds you; one piece of work leads painlessly, pointedly to another. Beyond the Caro, on the left hand wall, are two of the more famous David Hockneys  – A Bigger Splash and Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy – bisected by a beautiful – joyous, even – John Hoyland, in thrall also to the Abstract Expressionists but none the worse for that, it’s Rothko-like, maybe more Elsworth Kelly-like reverberating red offset by strips of dark green and paler grey.

28. 5. 66 1966 by John Hoyland 1934-2011

’28. 5. 66′ John Hoyland

Continue along the wall and at the furthest end, beyond the arch, is one of Frank Auerbach’s paintings of Primrose Hill – accompanied, it seems, by a persistent bird song that first of all has me looking up at the ceiling to see if one has somehow sneaked in and then draws me through the arch and into the adjoining room, where, beside Michael Andrews’ marvellous Melanie and Me Swimming, a small and old-fashioned looking television screen is showing Gilbert and George’s In the Bush, a blurry piece of video focussed vaguely on said bush, in front of which a figure (or are they figures?) of someone (or ones) seems to be moving. George, perhaps? Or Gilbert? Possibly both. And what are they up to in there? No doubt about the bird though, which, while I can’t identify it’s particular call, just keeps on singing.

'Melanie and Me Swimming'  Michael Andrews

‘Melanie and Me Swimming’ Michael Andrews

Placed just a little further along is Tony Cragg’s Stack, a rectangle of compressed materials – wood, concrete, brick, metal, plastic, textiles, cardboard and paper – which instantly calls to mind  Phyllida Barlow’s gargantuan many-part sculpture, dock, which is currently clambering all over the inside of  the Duveen Galleries – the high-ceilinged, classically proportioned central corridor of Tate Britain – with its wonderfully messy assemblages of timber, card, plasterboard, fabric and polystyrene.

'Stack'  Tony Cragg

‘Stack’ Tony Cragg

Turn away from the Cragg, in fact, step back through the arch and look up past Hoyland and the Hockneys and the Caro and there are the pink, orange and red panels that form one section of Barlows’ work filling the frame and echoing back into the room. Turn again and proceed through the opposite arch,  passing between Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking and Roger Hilton’s exuberant and de Kooning-like (those Abstract Expressionists again) Oi Yoi You and a visual corridor of magnificent earlier sculptures stretches away – from Henry Moore’s Working Model for Unesco Reclining Figure and Barbara Hepworth’s Corinthos to Epstein’s monumental alabaster Jacob and the Angel.

There. An hour, give or take, mooching about Tate Britain. And what delights, what wonders it contains.

 

Art Chronicles: Migrations

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The newish show at Tate Britain – Migrations: Journeys into British Art – largely drawn from the Tate’s own holdings, sets out to register the impact of succeeding generations of immigrants on British art from the 17th century onwards, and, in so doing, presents a broader version of same gallery’s larger show detailing the influence of Picasso on Modern British Art.

Of necessity, it’s something of a whistle-stop tour – van Dyck & portraiture, Italian Neoclassicism, Jewish Artists & Refugees from Nazi Europe up to  the present day. These are really pointers, and pointers only, most sections capable of shouldering a show on their own accord, but, taken together, they make for a diverting hour or so, one which, here and there, demands greater attention.

The Mud Bath 1914 by David Bomberg 1890-1957

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There are some fine, almost stunning, pieces here: David Bomberg’s The Mud Bath placed alongside the lesser-known Jews at Prayer by Jacob Kramer, both pieces near-perfect meldings of traditional Jewish culture with the tenets of modernity; Kurt Schwitters’ Picture of Spatial Growth – Picture of Two Small Dogs, a three-dimensional collage built from the collected ephemera of his enforced travels; Mona Hatoum’s video installation, Measures of Distance, made during the Lebanese civil war and based around intimate but interrupted conversations between the London-based artist and her Lebanese-Palestinian mother in Beirut; the Black Audio Film Collective’s 1986 film, Handsworth Songs, its images of urban rioting in Birmingham and London, the latter including the funeral of Cynthia Jarrett, which led to rioting on the Broadwater Estate in Tottenham and the consequent death of PC Keith Blakelock, sadly pertinent today.

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Art Chronicles: Barry Flanagan

In my ignorance, I’d never heard of Barry Flanagan before coming across this show of Early Works at Tate Britain; didn’t even know it was on. Since Tate, in its wisdom, had put all its current publicity spend behind the John Martin exhibition in another part of the building, how could I? As it happened, my Northern Line/Victoria Line route got me there in more than good time for a meeting and I went for a wander … Barry Flanagan? What’s that all about then?

I did recognise one of his bronze prancing hares, of course – the work, at least, but not the name. But it wasn’t the hares, fun as they are, that made this, for me, one of the best art shows of the year. One thing I loved was the sense of surprise as I went from room to room – knowing nothing, there had to be surprise of a kind, but not like this. Arranged chronologically, there’s a sense of discovery that comes from tracing, almost, Flanagan’s attempts to find forms of sculpture that move beyond the norm. So, soft materials instead of hard; pieces not on a plinth [though some are] but on the floor; works which invite an element of chance – which invite the spectator – especially at the time, late 60s, early 70s, that some were made – to think if not to say, Sculpture? This isn’t sculpture, surely?

Four pieces of coloured felt strung out on a line. A pile of coloured canvas ‘sausages’ filled with sand. Four hessian blankets neatly folded on top of one another. Teepee-like constructions made from hessian, sticks and string.

All oddly but near-perfectly satisfying as objects to look at – the colour, the way the different elements are placed one against another, the simplicity – all giving pause for thought, consideration: why are they as pleasurable as they are? why/how is this sculpture and why not? Anyone could do it – that old chestnut – and the old reply, why didn’t they, then? And if they had, if they’d tried, would the result have looked like this? Would it, bollocks!

And, my absolute favourite, light on light on sacks from 1969 …

In Tate Britain, the piece is in the furthest corner of quite a large space, a large room, so that you see it as soon as you enter, but not from close to, and what you see is a pile of sacks containing, one might suppose, wheat or grain, and on the side wall above them, an open doorway or window through which light shines from the outside. An illusion, of course. In part, an illusion. The sacks are real, the sacks are there; the light is projected from in front and not behind. And yet, brilliantly and easily, the piece transposes us – part of us, part of our minds, our mind’s eye – even as we know we are standing, feet-firm, inside a gallery in Pimlico – to a barn somewhere in the countryside. Even after we have learned how the trick, if that’s what it is, has been played, we do not resent the way our vision, our mind, has been tweaked; the piece does not lose, I think, its beauty or its power.

As befits a show which sets out to present the early work of an artist testing, feeling his way, there is a wealth of other material here: works in stone, or painted metal, ceramic, bronze and steel – and works on paper, drawings and collage.

Having stumbled on this show of Flanagan’s work by chance, I’ve been back to see it once, and will do so again before it closes on January 2nd. As I’ve suggested, it’s one of the most enjoyable – and stimulating – I’ve been to this year.