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

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Fallen Women

Earlier this week I went along to visit the Foundling Museum’s temporary exhibition, Fallen Woman, which focuses on the hundreds of ummarried women who, shamed by pregnancy outside of wedlock, were encouraged to give up their illegitimate children to the care of the Foundling Hospital. The institution’s admissions policy during the Victorian era, although philanthropic by nature, was heavily influenced by Britain’s moral climate; for a period of about 50 years, mothers had to prove that they were of a previously good character and class. The ‘Fallen Women’ who were approved by the Hospital were therefore those mothers who wished to claw their way back to their respectable lives pre-seduction. As Margaret Reynolds explains, what makes a ‘woman fallen is sexual knowledge outside marriage’, coupled with the commonly-held opinion that this (often solitary) act would, in turn, lead to a life of prostitution, violence or death.

'The Drunkard’s Children', 1848 by George Cruikshank, best known as one of the early illustrators of Dickens’s novels

‘The Drunkard’s Children’, 1848 by George Cruikshank, best
known as one of the early illustrators of Dickens’s novels

The exhibition brings back to life the voices of the hundreds of milliners, governesses and maids – once upright members of society – who had become the epitome of what it meant to be a fallen woman. Small tokens, paintings and moralised images of the time take up the majority of wall space in the exhibition rooms, but it is the wealth of original testimonies, interview transcripts of the petitioning mothers and documents from the Foundling’s archives that evoke the most distressing, and effective, images of these women.

Named ‘petitioners’ because of the way they had to prove they were sorry for being seduced and that their children were worthy of being taken in by the hospital, the interview transcripts on show are endless tales of rape, abuse, marginalisation and social mores. In an attempt to obtain the clearest picture, the Foundling board (predominantly male) asked petitioning mothers incredibly detailed questions about the nature of their relationship with the father of the child: ‘Where did you reside when you were seduced?’… ‘Was the criminal intercourse repeated?’. The tales would not look out of place in a Victorian crime caper: There is the woman who thought she was being taken to see a piano but instead was taken to a bed; the housemaid’s lament of the lover that had deceitfully promised to marry her; the orphaned seamstress seduced by an aristocrat; the child born in a Paddington workhouse; the absent, dead or fleeing fathers….

Section of a petition transcript by mother Ann Gidding at the Foundling Museum

The sheer quantity of petitions is overwhelming, and even more so the number that were rejected by the Hospital on grounds as little as having an on-going relationship with the child’s father. The individual distress and disturbing personal circumstances of these women emerge clearly from these archives, made all the more atmospheric by the sound installation, ‘Fallen Voices’, by Steve Lewinson, which plays in the background of one of the main archive rooms.

There is only one month left to see the exhibition and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to absorb the old, decrepit London that you so often read about. But unlike these crime capers, these are not fictional characters but actual women who walked the streets of the Capital on their way to the Foundling to give up their newborn babies, in the most incomprehensible of circumstances.

Fallen Woman is at the Foundling Museum (London WC1N 1AZ) until 3 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!

Frank Auerbach at the Tate Britain

Best known for his depictions of North London’s urban landscapes and portraits of a regular cast of friends and family, Frank Auerbach’s paintings are brimming with colour, texture and fraught emotion. To call them paintings is almost misleading, as the sheer amount of oil paint he piles onto one canvas means the pieces often resemble sculptures more than two-dimensional works. Either way, he has a deserved reputation as one of Britain’s great living artists.

Head of E.O.W

Head of E.O.W. I, 1960

Tate Britain’s current exhibition of his work, curated by his close friend, sitter and artist Catherine Lampert, is an interesting and comprehensive insight into the artist. It comprises eight rooms, each representing decades in his career, and is influenced very heavily by the artist’s own wishes. The only room that is left untouched is the final room, over which Lampert had full creative agency. This room is presented as the climax of the exhibition, although to my eye it was rather underwhelming – viewers are merely reintroduced to pieces exhibited earlier, and it is quite easy to skip through without paying much attention.

Despite the chronological layout of the exhibition I found the lack of emphasis on his development as an artist and personal relationships quite refreshing. Rather than learning about each aspect of the artist’s work and life one formulaic step at a time, the viewer comes to appreciate Auerbach’s work and life as a whole: his relationship with his beloved London; his inner turbulence and sense of loneliness; his intense and deep appreciation of the human condition; his unique energy and intuitive understanding of colour…

Probably as a direct result of how involved Auerbach was in the curatorial process, the emphasis is not on how he came to achieve greatness, but instead his great pieces. The timeline encountered as you exit the exhibition is presented as a mere afterthought that draws the exhibition together (you learn, for example, the specific years that Auerbach worked with the model and his former lover, Estella (Stella) Olive West (‘E.O.W.’) and when his artistic relationship with his wife Julia began). By eschewing the conventional biographical context in the curation, I was more able to connect with Auerbach’s pieces more directly.

Often insisting that his subjects sit for him weekly and for prolonged periods of time, he is known to have produced dozens of portraits of the same person, each slightly different. As one of his most frequent sitters, David Landau remembers, ‘he has now made 45 portraits of me. Each one draws me back to the time it was painted. He is a tremendous friend: the only person, apart from my wife, who I’ve seen so consistently for so long.’

E.O.W. on Her Blue Eiderdown II, 1965

Many of his sitters can recognise themselves in Auerbach’s portraits of themselves. Due to the level of abstraction in his paintings, I was initially very sceptical… It’s entirely likely, however, that these sitters are not just recognising themselves but a more general aspect of human feeling, something which Auerbach is able to pinpoint and express exactly through paint. As Jonathan Jones explained: ‘He depicts not people as such, but the human condition. How they suffer, and how he suffers with them.’

As suggested by the weekly sitting with his muses, the process that Auerbach undertakes to create his sculpture-like paintings verge on the laborious. Often working on a single piece for years on end, he continuously edits his work, scraping back the surface of his canvas and re-starting the painting process daily, in an attempt to achieve the exact emotional state or perspective that he perceives and wants to communicate. Strangely, the final iteration is often finished in just a day, if the months and years that were so readily and almost instinctively erased prior are to be discounted. What struck me most about Auerbach’s paintings was the paradox between this time-consuming process, and the impression that you get, as a viewer, that his paintings transport you to only a specific and very brief moment or perspective in time.

 

In this way, my favourite pieces are from his series based on his home and life in Camden, North London. Painting the parks, the crescents, the squares, the views from his apartment more times in the last 50 years than he could probably remember, each depiction brings out a different perspective and point in time. The earliest painting, for example, of Mornington Crescent, in between Camden and Kings Cross, was done in 1965, whilst his most recent is from 1997. Living in the capital for over 50 years, the London he knew was constantly changing, as it still does today, from minute to minute – something which I can entirely relate to. As he said, ‘what I wanted to do was to record the life that seemed to me to be passionate and exciting and disappearing all the time.’ Whilst obviously relating to the ever-changing architecture of London, as brought to attention by the predominance of scaffolding in many of his paintings, I love how he observes and communicates how one’s perception of a place can change every time you see it, depending on your mood, the season or recent events.

Frank Auerbach

Frank Auerbach

A (not) very British concert etiquette…

As it turns out, even Gillian Moore, the head of music at the Southbank Centre, is a victim of elitism in classical music. Last week, she wrote a piece for Sinfini Music about some recent experiences she has had in the concert hall, noting a moment when a fellow audience member rebuked her for moving while the music was playing. The scolder even went so far as to advise her to ‘stay at home next time’, because she clearly didn’t know how to ‘behave in concerts’.

The account is startling, not least because of who was involved; one of the most influential and respected figures in classical music got told off, like an errant schoolgirl, for misbehaving. Understandably, she and her companion felt upset and humiliated from the experience. The worst of it is this wasn’t an isolated incident; similar things have happened to her numerous times.

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In the last three months, I have also been made to feel uncomfortable and out of place in the last two out of four ‘traditional’ classical concerts I’ve been to. The first happened at the BBC Proms. A man two rows behind my friend and I told us to ‘sit down, for goodness sake. It’s not finished’ as the audience was clapping after the final movement of a concerto in the first half (the concerto, by the way, was the final piece in the programme, but my friend and I didn’t know that this would normally be a time for an encore so we stood up ready to go and get some fresh air). After being put in our place, we quickly sat back down again for the encore, with our tails between our legs.

My biggest regret about the whole saga was that I chose not to stand up for myself. Like Gillian, I am a seasoned concert-goer and I will always go to another concert because, well, that’s just what I enjoy doing. But if it was my first time, I’m inclined to think my reaction would have been very different. I just wish I sucked up my British fear of confrontation and let my reprimander know that there is more than one way to behave in a concert hall.

There are plenty of initiatives in place within the sector to tackle the stuffy and inaccessible perception of classical music. Concert series like the OAE NightShift and City of London Sinfonia’s CLoSer break down the barriers and rules that you would traditionally be subject to in a concert hall: silence; dress codes; applause at specified moments and (my pet hate) programme notes that resemble PhD theses. Schemes have also been created to enable young people to access cheap tickets, guides written to make outsiders more comfortable, and cross-cultural programmes introduced as a way to entice new-comers to the art. There are certainly signs that, from the industry side, the elitist problem has been identified and is beginning to be tackled. Long-standing conservative conventions are being challenged, outsiders are being welcomed and barriers are being broken. But where does the audience fit in to this? If new-comers are still being rebuffed for ‘inappropriate behaviour’, it seems they still have a long way to go…

And so it seems to me that the problem of elitism in classical music no longer lies with the industry; the professionals are making the changes necessary and now it is the audience that needs to be brought up to speed. And so, in this vein, here is my (not) very British concert etiquette to push those reprimanding audience members in the right direction:

  1. Enjoy the music, the sights, the atmosphere, the experience. That’s what you’re there to do.
  2. Be considerate of those around you, just as you would at at the cinema or theatre
  3. Remember that you have as much right as anyone else to be there. Stand up for yourself if someone else thinks differently.

 

Cyborgs, Spotify and online identities

There has been a lot of coverage recently about Spotify, namely the (apparently embarrassing) leaks of famous music critics’ playlists and the revelation that the music giant is intending to gain access to its users photos, data and otherwise. It made me think about the relationship between music and social media…

On Facebook and Twitter, users control what they want their friends and followers to see. This extends from your personal privacy settings to the very concept of these channels themselves. Users might choose not to share the porridge they had for breakfast on a Monday morning, for example, but boast very publicly about the yummy full English they had for Saturday brunch. Facebook doesn’t automatically know that you are eating porridge and share that information with your followers … a human being, either you or a friend perhaps, would have to actively publish that information. There is a difference between your real self and your online self (for the mean time anyway…), and that’s the way it should be.

Spotify, on the other hand, knows, withholds and can publish your whole musical identity. Music, for me anyway, is a very private thing and this thought does unnerve me a little. I do not like the thought that Spotify lets my friends, colleagues and acquaintances know what I like to listen to on my Monday morning commute to work, without my permission. I don’t mind actively telling people what I listen to, in the same way that I might tweet about my delicious Saturday brunch, but that is my choice.

spotify

I suppose the difference lies in the fact that Spotify is first a live streaming service; a private means of me accessing music. Facebook and Twitter, on the other hand, are billboards for my social persona and that is the way they have always been. Recently Spotify has allowed itself, without its users consent, to evolve into this social network and I’m not sure I’m happy about it. Just because I have grown to accept that photos taken of me and events that I attend are public in the social network era, doesn’t mean I should accept everything should be like this too.

This all might be slightly trivial; the Spotify cyborg doesn’t really impact my life and I know there are ways around it. For one, Spotify has some pretty thorough privacy settings and; to be honest; I could just buy my music in the way of CDs and iTunes and avoid this altogether. But the media fallout did make me think about the impact live streaming has on my online persona. For me, the music I enjoy occupies a separate and personal space from my online social presence and I don’t like the thought of that being jeopardised, in the way that I feel it was with the leaked playlists of the Wire music critic.

What do you think?

Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain – A Personal Discovery

As a self-professed art-lover, I’m embarrassed to admit that my interest in abstract sculpture has, for the most part of my life, been negligible. (I’m talking about the ‘Single form with ball’ sculptures of the world, by the way; the big marble spheres or three-dimensional shapes placed, apparently intentionally, in front of culturally significant buildings).

Henry Moore's 'Three Way Piece No. 2' outside Toronto City Hall. Before unveiling, newspapers apparently dubbed it "Henry Moore's big bronze whatchamacallit".

It’s funny because I definitely know and could identify the big boys within the movement…the Henry Moores, the Alexander Calders, the Jacob Epsteins… and I would certainly appreciate the significance of seeing their pieces within a gallery or in a plaza in a European City. But I have always remained emotionally indifferent towards them, and have never really come to love them as much as their two-dimensional counterparts.

Now – it is very possible that my lifelong indifference could originate in prejudice, or even just taste, but I’m inclined to think that there’s more to it than that. How many times, for example, have you been to an exhibition that focuses on modernist sculpture? Or rather, how often are these works of art guaranteed your absolute attention? For me, the Barbara Hepworth exhibition at the Tate Britain marked the first time I have focused on the movement, and (I would say not by coincidence) the first time I have come to emotionally appreciate and connect with these beautiful and evocative pieces of art.

Barbara Hepworth's 'Wave' as displayed in Tate Britain's Hepworth exhibition

In the Telegraph’s less-than-enthusiastic review of the exhibition, Alastair Sooke criticises the fact that rediscovery is at the forefront of the exhibition, not to mention the fact that the sculptures, so indebted to the natural world, are presented in an enclosed and artificial space. In his opinion, Hepworth is familiar and well-established enough. The fact that the curators chose to present the well-trodden aspects of her career, such as her relationship with fellow artist Ben Nicholson and her commercial awareness, is demeaning to her true reputation and significance.

At this point I just want to ask: who exactly is the audience here? Who is it that is coming along to the Tate and experiencing these incredibly evocative pieces of art? Hepworth enthusiasts might agree that the exhibition offers little fresh perspective, but how many people are really of this clan? Surely the fact that there hasn’t been an exhibition focused on Hepworth in London for nearly half a century is proof enough that her work isn’t that familiar. I would say that the vast majority of the people who have attended this Hepworth exhibition are, like me, art-lovers, and perhaps, like me, enjoyed discovering the world of (Hepworth’s) modernist sculpture in a rare exhibition within a cultural scene dominated by other mediums.

It’s true that the artificially-lit basement of Tate Britain is not the ideal space for Hepworth’s sensuous and tactile works, and as organic extensions of the natural world, there is no way that they would have their full intended effect here. However, this is not something the curators shy away from. Whilst learning about Hepworth’s delicate manipulation of space, the aesthetic satisfaction of viewing the works and the incredible artistic technique behind them, we are constantly reminded of their fascinating relationship with nature. The final room even attempts to recreate one of the most acclaimed outdoor collections of her works in the natural world, and you (almost) come to believe you are actually outside. Having learnt so much about what her art, and this movement as a whole, means and can make one feel, the fact that there is more to explore and find in these natural environments was just an added bonus. For me, it was a rare opportunity and the perfect (re)introduction to sculpture of this sort.

While the exhibition may not offer an original message, it certainly offers a unprecedented focus, particularly in the London art scene, on the emotional power of modernist sculpture. It certainly opened my eyes, ears and heart to the movement anyway, and for those who, like me, have always struggled to connect with innocuous balls made of marble, I would definitely recommend a visit!