The Muse

 

My latest top lot is Sarah Lucas’s series of Muses, three of which were recently on display in the North Drawing Room of London’s Sir John Soane Museum. Originally commissioned for the Venice Biennale as part of her I SCREAM DADDIO exhibition, the series features ten bodies in plaster cast, for which Lucas used various female friends as models. Each body is literally ‘topless’ – a pair of legs chopped off at the waist – adopting a range of poses from the coquettish to the confrontational. The concept behind these works recall some of her previous pieces, including Hysterical Attack, which was on display at her 2000 exhibition, The Pleasure Principle, at the Freud Museum.

For me these pieces evoke so many different meanings and interpretations and it is this continuous thought-provocation that I love. The most overt theme plays on the idea of male voyeurism. By chopping off the head and torso of these muses, their sexual identities are brought to the fore (not to mention playing with the idea of ‘toplessness’). Despite most of the poses involving open legs and erotically-suggestive positionings over tables and chairs, the figures are far removed from invoking any sexual desire in the viewer. Instead they take on an almost intellectual capacity, perhaps achieved with the addition of the comical positioning of the cigarettes,which give them a self-contained status.

The everyday objects on which the muses are placed – tables, chairs… – form a crucial part of the artworks as a whole. Reminiscent of plinths, the furniture and the muses combine to echo and subvert the tradition of the reclining female nude, ubiquitous in so many pieces of Western Art. Their proximity to Soane’s extensive collection of antique plaster casts gives these topless nymphs a further critical position within the tradition of classical sculpture.

Aside from these associations, Lucas embraces the muses’ femininity – these are real women and these are their real bodies. Unlike so many of today’s pictures of women in the media, they are not airbrushed and glossed over with tummy rolls and bum dimples on full show. The chipping of some of the casts on particular works, such as the hole in the back of Michele, draws attention to the process of casting these women in plaster, emphasising their actual presence. Aesthetically and despite these traditionally-perceived ‘imperfections’, the shapes of the female forms are generally soft and tactile. The cigarettes inserted into various bodily crevaces add a violent and brutal quality, as they crudely cut across the smooth, muscular lines, creating visual contrast for the viewer.

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But, most of all, these sculptures make me laugh, and I don’t think this is a wrong or inappropriate response to have. Such staged sexuality is so crude, so subversive, so critical that you don’t know how to respond to it; how to act. Their positioning within the traditional walls of John Soane’s prim and proper abode makes them even more shocking, and – as a consequence – all the more effective.

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Stanley Spencer and Jesus’s Red Thong

My latest Top Lot is this extraordinary painting I saw recently at York Art Gallery: Stanley Spencer’s ‘The Deposition and Rolling Away of the Stone’ (1956).

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Spencer was a devout Christian and often used biblical scenes as the subject for his paintings. He believed God resided in all things and that the miraculous could be found in everyday objects and places. Many of his paintings are set in his home village of Cookham on the bank of the Thames – even if their subject matters were irrelevant to that particular location – and so often foster personal associations. What struck me most about ‘The Deposition’ was the way in which he creates ‘real’, characterful people out of a traditionally theological and idolised subject matter.

At once realistic, eccentric and filled with intense religious meaning, this piece is probably one of the most unusual depictions of the crucifixion I have ever seen. I couldn’t quite get my head around it. The subject is of course Christ, who is not dead – as commonly conveyed in church frescos or Renaissance paintings – but awake, alert and awaiting his fate. There is also a jarring absence of gore (his wounds have no blood) which builds on the unusual effect that Christ is alive… omnipresent.

Look on and the curiosity grows greater. The three men who are nailing Christ’s hands and feet are not the usual superficial props of the Renaissance scenes but are instead full of character. One, for example, is conscientiously checking under Christ’s foot that his positioning of the nail is correct, another seems to be working out how to best use his tool and the other is posed in such a way that really accentuates the force he is applying in order to complete the task at hand. Such conscientiousness is a strange distraction from the crucifixion itself, but again conveys these men as ‘real’ people… it’s as if the scene could be found at any time and place; not just the idolised scene in the bible.

Perhaps most arresting, however, are the red thongs Jesus and some of the other men are wearing. The colour signifies or foreshadows blood, danger and death – as one would expect from the crucifixion story – but the bizarre presence of this provocative underwear could suggest an unorthodox sexualisation of this most sacred of Christian scenes. Again, it transforms the subject and peripheral figures into some more human. John the Baptist, pictured on the left in a blue starry gown, is also believed to resemble the artist himself – again bringing in that element of personal realism and religious omnipresence.

While the top section of the painting has a claustrophobic feel, with figures dominating the length of space, the bottom part depicts a less chaotic atmosphere. The disciples are curled into tight balls in a physical display of their grief, almost reflecting the circular tomb, whilst two angels attend, foreseeing his redemption. By incorporating the more traditional aspects of the scene of the crucifixion with some quite unusual elements, Spencer introduces a very important and probably often overlooked aspect of Christian art: that of the omnipresence of Christ.

 

Big Bang Fountain

I was completely blown away by this piece by Olafur Eliasson – Big Bang Fountain, 2014 – on display at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm as part of the artist’s exhibition, ‘Reality Machines’. The delivery of the piece is really very simple; a small water fountain in a pitch black room, illuminated for periods of mere nano-seconds by a flash of blue light.

With every flash, the viewer is provided with a unique ‘image’. The flashes seem to catch the specific moment between upwards and downwards motion; something which you would never be able to capture in normal light or time. As the artist explains ‘we see things that are unseeable, that you cannot see’… the water is ‘the sculpture in the show that you can never ever make a mathematical form out of.’

Not only is each illuminated form different every time you see it, it is one that is completely at odds with, and much more intricately beautiful than, how you conventionally see or experience flowing water. What I found most fascinating, however, was the way the viewer is acquainted with a constant contradiction between the sound of the flowing, moving water (which can be heard despite the darkness) and the still ‘images’ as produced by the flashing blue light.

 

 

Nature Morte aux Forbidden Fruits

My Top Lot this week is this amazing still life by Picasso (1945). Currently up for sale at Sotheby’s Auction House (estimated to go for a massive £150,000… guess I won’t be buying it for my bedroom wall then…), the collage is part of the artists’s grand-daughter, Marina Picasso’s, private collection which she inherited when he died in 1973.

Picasso, Nature Mortes aux Fruits, 1945

For me, the piece, so simple and so characteristic of his late style, captures just how incredibly talented the artist was. I love his use of primary colours blue and red, complemented by small bits of purple and green, and the way all the different floating coloured shapes are framed and grounded by the energetic charcoal-black lines. It just seems to epitomise exactly what Picasso does well: breaking the subject down into its core elements; emphasising what is necessary for its representation and removing what isn’t.

I also love the tantalising bits of detail in the composition which really set your imagination on fire. Is that a figure in a doorway in the background? His shadow and posture look kind of imposing… what could he be saying? Despite their (seemingly unpaletable colouring) the fruits in the bowl look delicious and very tempting. As a viewer you almost feel like Eve and the Forbidden Fruit. Does the figure in the doorway represent God looking over Adam and Eve in Genesis?

Whatever your interpretation of the piece, Picasso’s revolutionary development of the still-life genre is not something to look over. No longer a mere vessel to demonstrate an artist’s technical prowess, one of Picasso greatest achievements was his development of still life genre into – and to quote Sotheby’s directly – “a tool capable of evoking the most complex blend of pathos and defiance, of despair to hope, balancing personal and universal experience in an expression of extraordinary emotional power”.

Giacometti and Caroline

Giacometti will always remain one of my favourite artists. For my latest Top Lot, I’ve picked this amazing portrait, Caroline, painted in 1961.

Caroline, 1961

What draws me most to this portrait, as with many others by Giacometti, is the way you are drawn into the figure’s head and eyes. The head is shrunk slightly so that it is disproportionately smaller than the torso; the eyes are almost scribbled upon and made to appear soulless; and the immediate background of the head and shoulders is purposely very plain and light; a hollow space, drawing attention to the facial skin which is very dark and intense.

These techniques all contribute in making the subject’s sense of presence almost hollow: is the viewer looking at Caroline, or is Caroline looking at the viewer? Despite the painting being a portrait of Caroline, there is little sense of individuality in her features (compare, for example, to the other portraits Giacometti did of her). Giacometti projects no sense of individual personality; she is just an anonymous woman staring out into the world in desperation and isolation.

In addition to the style Giacometti employs in his portraiture, the accompanying facts about who Caroline was and her relationship with Giacometti are sparse. Unlike his family members and wife Annette, who is also painted frequently, there is little information about the young woman apart from she was a young prostitute and model that Giacometti met in a bar.  Apparently Giacometti had been drawn into ‘the orbit of her gaze’. As Giacometti’s friend said, ‘Her eyes were so big they just sucked you in…’

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Giacometti and Caroline at a bar in Paris

I can certainly understand why Giacometti was associated with the idea of existentialism throughout his career. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it (and the recent exhibition of his works at the National Portrait Gallery), Caroline is depicted as a ‘pure presence’: she is merely another human being looking back you. The so-called ‘orbit of her gaze’ reverses the subject of the portrait to the viewer and poses the question: is there any grand meaning in life? Are we just alone in an absurd and irrational world?

Giacometti: Pure Presence is at the National Portrait Gallery (London WC2H 0HE) until 10 January 2016

Dreams and déjà vu: John Stezaker

In this blog series, Top Lots, I feature some of my favourite pieces of art. My first is this piece by John Stezaker: Ventriloquist III, 2013, Collage.

Ventriloquist III, 2013

When I first saw this work I had the biggest sense of déjà vu. For me it encapsulates the confusion and quick associations one finds in one’s dreams: seemingly unrelated scenes transitioning smoothly into one another; associations left unquestioned; bodies not quite real but nonetheless recognisable… Whenever I look at this collage I’m transported back to those times when you awake and reminisce about a recent dream where, rationally, you know the series of events is extremely strange, but to your memory, it all seems so real.

Deceptively simple in their composition, John Stezaker’s collages are appropriated from images found in books, magazines and postcards, often from the high Hollywood era. Sourcing them, cutting them and piecing them together in his studio in London, his elegant compositions draw on the content and contexts of the originals, whilst combining to convey a whole new meaning. Even with his slightly humourous collages, with distorted bodies, gender hybrids and at times ridiculous partnerings, I find myself captivated and wondering where I have experienced that feeling before!