Monthly Archives: June 2015

Talking about Modigliani

After the usual internal, unoptimised travelling salesman calculations, I went to Finsbury Park first, to catch the last day of Beyond the Interface at the Furtherfield Gallery. On the way there from the station, I walked past a group of dog owners being trained, in dog ownership. Was the trainer using the Barbara Woodhouse approach, or is it verboten even to mention her now? Perhaps they were troublesome dogs.

As with the last time it happened, at the Whitechapel, I was glad to see Heath Bunting’s work. Here there were maps and booklets describing the requirements and entitlements of notional classes of people to various official statuses and documents. We’re all at some point along many flowcharts. In the same room on a stand was an enticing Apple power cable. Printed on the perspex case surrounding the innards from which the cable emerged was a waiver of rights, applicable if you plugged in your device to sup the power. The system grabbed images from your phone if you did connect, uploaded them to a remote server and then projected selections from them. Of course, generally we just agree that these terms and conditions are annoying and move on to what we want.

In the same room was a laptop with a connection to an instance of LambdaMOO. The cave I was in was pretty smoky, so I climbed the ladder to the next space. Staying here too long might not be wise, according to the text, and I moved elsewhere. It made an interesting point about the need to “enter a country in the right way”. It was incredibly tempting to tell Gandalf to go away, as I would have done in The Hobbit. Zach Blas’ “Facial Weaponization Communiqué: Fag Face” was a clever rumination on the prevalence and implications of facial recognition, including a pink mask which didn’t attract the tell-tale algorithmic rectangle in the video footage. Like encrypting your e-mail, this act would naturally attract a lot of attention from the authorities. To be fully effective we would all have to wear the masks. Jennifer Chan’s Grey Matter captured the gaudiness of teenage online interactions and included these comments regarding a distinction that’s sadly eliding away:

Envy is wanting what someone else has
Jealousy is not wanting them to have it at all

On the way to the station there was lots of ominous walling-off and fencing activity, obstructing the way you wanted to go. This all turned out to be in preparation for the Wireless Festival.

Flickr album.

At the Estorick Collection there were lots of people taking tiffin on the tables outside, which was unusual. Quite pleased with myself for coming one week before the closure of the Modigliani exhibition, I saw at the entrance that there was to be a tour/talk in an hour and a bit. This didn’t fit in with my original schedule, but seemed appealing. Something to consider while I walked around.

There were a few quotes from Modigliani printed on the walls:

Your real duty is to save your dream. Beauty too has some painful duties; these produce, however, the noblest achievements of the soul.

Life is a gift, from the few to the many. From those who know and who have, to those who do not know and do not have.

An observation I’ve made before and which applied doubly here was that his confidence was shown through the economy of line, capturing his models with only what was essential. As usually happens at this gallery, I went around the two rooms again, to revisit my favourites, before going upstairs to see Shaping the Image by Lino Mannocci. The manipulation of postcard-sized images was a good idea and quite funny in parts. The main effect on me, though, was to remind me of a similar project in the Gerhard Richter show at Marian Goodman last year. Boccioni, one of the artists referred to, was mentioned in passing in the Oliver Hoare catalogue. Hoare said he preferred Severini, primarily because he never allied himself with Futurism.

Almost the perfect Islington cliché moment occurred when I heard a couple mention

Jeremy Corbyn.

Yes, he was in G2.

After Furtherfield, I was conscious of the face detection features of my camera, which were activated by some of the drawings. Even though it clashed with my arrangements for later that day, it would have felt mean-spirited not to attend the talk/tour, especially when I saw the host, Richard Nathanson, trying to attract custom in the garden in the most polite way possible, adding that

“If you drift off before the end of the tour, I won’t be at all offended”.

Most of the pieces in the show were attributed to him, so either he was a millionaire collector or very well connected. After all my self-indulgent deciding process, the talk was marvellous. It’s easy to forget the pleasure of genuine knowledge and appreciation, sincerely conveyed. One of the first points he made was that Modigliani’s corrections become part of intrinsic design. There were no rubbings out in the drawings and he kept at an idea until his expression was completed. The artist’s childhood was unusual, including a strong influence from his grandfather, descended from Spinoza. A critic described him as the most knowledgeable artist he’d ever encountered.

“What I am searching for is neither the real nor the unreal, but the subconscious, the mystery of what is instinctive in the human race”

Nathanson stressed the Gargantuan labours that allowed him to draw with this freedom, addressing my naive reaction about confidence through economy. The Blue Caryatid was:

“Like a single barely audible violin note held at a perfect pitch.”

while another was “like a piece of Chinese calligraphy”. He thought that lots of meditation was required before starting each drawing, and that Modigliani made instinctive additions (such as small designs in the top corners to balance the composition), which ultimately arose from sober reflection. Referring to some of Modigliani’s relationships and encounters, he pointed back at the large photo of the artist by the entrance, and highlighted to us that he’d attempted the same outfit himself, corduroy trousers and a sweater. He was hoping for the same level of success.

Nathanson kept wanting to refer to the relevant pages in the catalogue, and when he had some difficulties someone in the audience shouted out the page number. He came to rely on her assistance and relied to the “very kind lady with the page number”. Even though the drawings betoken a very intimate relationship between the sitter and the artist, Nathanson said that Modigliani “needed distance” and mainly composed his drawings at home, by candlelight. He had to “draw back from the immediate characters to find their angel spirits”, creating a “fusion of primordial quality with the mystery and beauty of human beings”. The most surprising revelation for me was the artist’s interest in Egyptian art, which was indeed very clear in some of the drawings. Apparently he wanted his art to accompany souls into the next world like Egyptian art surrounding the sarcophagus of a king. This explains in part why he didn’t engage with the art world movements of the time (Cubism, Fauvism etc.). He saw himself as part of a timeless tradition, within which these stylistic fads were irrelevant.

Our guide was able to add lots of biographical detail about the artist and the sitters, including one “cat-like lady”, who seduced Jean Cocteau, the latter writing a virulent piece about her afterwards, in revenge. Nathanson thought that obscuring a single small feature on one of the drawings, such as by holding your finger over it, would radically change the balance, indicating how carefully composed they were. One portrait of a “jeune fille” was only included because of an encounter at a dinner party, when he was discussing his preparatory work on the show. As a result, it wasn’t in the catalogue.

Estorick Collection 21st June 2015 - Jeune Fille

Other memorable comments were that “happiness is an angel with a grave face” and that the markings on one drawing were like those of a “slow burning Catherine wheel”.

A few people were speaking to him afterwards in front of the portrait of Dr François Brabander, which was is part of the permanent collection at the Estorick. The eyes looked on the verge of tears, showing the man’s compassion, while the tension created by the unusually high starched collars reflected the man’s suffering.

Estorick Collection 21st June 2015 - Jeune Fille

It was a very entertaining and enlightening talk, and there was a big queue outside the small Estorick shop afterwards, including me.

Flickr album.

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The Second Grotto

Every year, or at least for the second year running, which I think we can regard as meaning every year, I seem to end up walking through Waterloo when it’s Ascot. This meant the concourse was full of neophytes uniting bewilderment, over-dressing and inebriation in their persons. I wanted the quickest train to Twickenham, for a visit to Pope’s Grotto. As it turned out, this innocent 11:20 service served double duty as the “Royal Ascot Express”, indicated by a specially printed sign on platform 20. The racegoers tottered and swayed towards this goal, the furthest away of all platforms, and I joined them. It’s not often that I’m mildly jostled by the idly swaying top hat in the hand of the man in front, while surging towards a train.

Because I went for a distant carriage, there was a hiatus, until the gaudy horde arrived. When the carriage was pretty full, an American lady asked if I could swap seats with her friend, to allow them to sit together. When I agreed and moved, she displayed an ordinality error in her over-effusive gratitude:

Would you like an orange juice or something?

I feel like I have to bribe you, for being so sweet.

Normally the bribe is offered first. Pfft. I was now sharing a group of six seats with three lekking men and two American women.

“I told myself I wouldn’t drink on the train,” said one of them, who appeared to be leading their conversation. They were all drinking their mini-bottles of champagne or beer, and eating their sandwiches. Mind those expensive clothes… Tips about Ascot, and bottle openers, were shared. I think the best way of distilling the nature of their interactions is this quote:

Adam plays much better golf than I’ve seen, but the moment he hits a pressure situation…

Ah, golf. One of my long dead grannies used to advise an interest in golf, tennis and bridge, in order to Get On. Hopeful people wearing similar Ascot uniforms at Clapham Junction and Richmond had no chance of boarding, and it was a little awkward squeezing past to the doors at Twickenham. Outside, two marketing ladies asked “Are you interested in cooking, Sir?” “Not really,” was my terse but polite and accurate reply.

Nearly two years later I still haven’t written about my visit to the Margate Shell Grotto. Auto-tsk. Pope’s Grotto is all that remains of Alexander Pope’s villa by the Thames.  Reliant as ever on IanVisits, I knew it was open that day, which was likely to be a much better experience than going during Open House in September. Radnor School has built up around the grotto, so it had a slight air of a visit to a polling station, albeit an unusually well situated and appointed one. In addition to guides with the locations of specific rocks and features, they lent us small torches. There’s something very appealing about the sustained labour and interest represented by a grotto, though I suppose it’s not an enterprise many of us can indulge. It was only near the very end that I bumped my head on one of the dangling outcrops. Bah.

Pope's Grotto

“Well, that was an unexpected treat, wasn’t it,” was one comment, while I heard a wife chide her husband:

You’re just treating it like a treasure hunt now, aren’t you.

because he was ticking things off on the printed sheet. My only disappointment was that I couldn’t really spot the bit of Giant’s Causeway that was supposed to be there.

Flickr album.

Next it was quite a schlep to Golden Square, to the Frith Street Gallery for one of their two Fiona Tan exhibitions. After much pfaffing from District to Piccadilly, I ended up sitting opposite a middle-aged couple with his and hers Steve Watches, which he couldn’t resist using for some function or other. Soon the second swamping of the day transpired, this time a gaggle of Italian schoolkids learning English. “Move Language Ahead” it said on their white satchels. The woman corralling them with her stern teacher voice counted them all back again on the platform, like Brian Hanrahan.

Inventory consisted of six projections of footage taken in the Soane’s Museum. Something about the close-ups of the statues seemed to animate their faces and make them more poignant. You wondered about the histories of the objects, how so many of them came to be damaged (noses especially), and the histories of those people or gods they represented. There were different qualities and sizes of video/film and she cleverly edited them to provide simultaneous different views of the same object, with variations in texture as well. One thing I found interesting, but which perhaps should only have been remarked by a projector salesman, was that when they weren’t projecting anything, i.e. there was just a blank image, they ranged from a variety of greys to blacks. Did this mean some of them were better than others? Was it meaningful variation?

In Soho Square there was a very different show, Ghost Dwellings, the three rooms all bearing the lived-in look that’s quite familiar to me. “It smells like an old house,” was one comment and the first room was indeed rather fusty. It was pleasing to see some rock samples, after the grotto, and an owl statue, after Inventory.

Fiona Tan - Inventory and Ghost Dwellings

The video footage here was of decayed Detroit. Good, but as always just a reminder of Mike Kelley’s marvellous Mobile Homestead. Next door was a cramped bedroom, with footage of unfinished premium housing developments near Cork. This was less powerful than the others, because it represented unfulfilled potential as opposed to actual loss or deterioration. My favourite was the room downstairs, which was partially a working area, with vacuum formed model parts, WD-40, dangling cables and other oddments. At the other end of the room was a video of Fukushima and the surrounding area after the tsunami. Objects that stood out for me included a telescope labelled Family 1000 and the blasted trees on the coastline, plus the train tracks already submerged under weeds.

Flickr album.

Fitzroy Square next for Every Object Tells A Story. The slight problem here was that the objects only really made sense with the large catalogue and addendum, though I suppose there wasn’t really room for a lot of blurbs on the wall. Some of the descriptions were mini-essays and one of a trio of Americans read out the whole thing for her companions. She was delighting in ringing a large gong when I came in. “Does it call people in for dinner?” It’s good to see opinionated collections, I suppose, though I do think it’s a problem if the main interest in the object is the story behind it, however interesting that may be.

Flickr album.

Disturbingly close to work though it was, I wanted to see rooms 4 and 5 of Forensics at the Wellcome Collection, having seen the first 3 a few weeks earlier during their late Friday opening. As I’d been warned, there was quite a large queue, headed by a member of staff who kept commiserating with and chatting to new arrivals. Behind me was a group of two couples. The men kept making a big joke of stealing over to sofas so they could have a sit down, their places being kept in the queue by the women, until they caught up with them. Bracingly transgressive though it was to be able to breeze quickly through the rooms I’d already seen, it was of course also very busy in the remaining 2. The volume of people meant that the cooling fans in one of the exhibits had failed and the experience of watching footage from Bosnia in the forensic fridge was a little diminished. The interviews with the barrister and forensic anthropologist were very good, as was Orson Welles’ radio dramatisation of the “Brides in the bath” murders. Right at the end was Taryn Simon’s The Innocents. Someone was asking a staff member, bizarrely, if this was “just political correctness”. The Wellcome person was very patient with him… I was glad I managed to see the whole thing, overcrowding notwithstanding.

Final excursion of the day was to Curzon Bloomsbury to see London Road. For some reason there were a succession of wrong seat incidents. Not sure why the Phoenix screen should be such a focus of recalcitrants. The film was very good, albeit also a reminder of the greatness of The Arbor. Very unusually, I recognised a couple that I’ve seen more than once on the Central Line, normally full of anonymised travellers.

Final observation of the day was that at this point in the year, at the right time of night, if you’re sitting on the right, there’s a lovely view of the sunset in the clouds at Leyton. Lovely poetic Leyton.