Thursday, 17 November 2011

Three artists who go together

Richter postcards
A few days ago I went down to London for one of those gallery-visit days when you try to fit in as much as you can and end up barely able to walk. I have done this so many times now, and suffered so much (I have particularly bad memories of hobbling across the river from the South Bank towards the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago) but, instead of just limiting myself to one or possibly two shows at the most, I now plan my mad days out with obsessive precision. That means an itinerary worked out on Google Maps, a printed-out sheet with the opening and closing times of the galleries, and details of the buses between them (if a better bet than the Tube -- I like a nice London bus ride). This time I planned to see the new shows by Gerhard Richter (at Tate Modern), Wilhelm Sasnal (at the Whitechapel) and Marlene Dumas (at Frith Street Gallery). All three of these are artists I strongly admire. Richter is probably my favourite artist, if there is any point in specifying such a thing.
Marlene Dumas' brilliant portraits of Phil Spector at the Frith Street Gallery
This time I had my son with me and as a result of my over-zealous planning we found ourselves outside the Frith Street Gallery (amusingly not in Frith Street) before it actually opened. I found this quite interesting in itself as we got to see the first employees arriving, the unlocking of the doors, the raising of the security shutters, the arrival of several more employees (how on earth do they pay all their salaries?) -- all of this feeding my fantasy of working in an art gallery.
     Actually I was once offered a job in an art gallery out of the blue, by an author when I worked in London publishing. It came as a complete surprise and I just didn't have the nerve to make such a big change in my career at that point -- if I'd taken it I wonder what I'd be doing now? Probably not running a very small university press. I also once turned down a job 'running' the bit of Warner Bros record label that takes the UK acts round to all the overseas labels and tries to get them to promote the acts. This was just such a radically unbelievable offer (ooh, those were the days -- it was the Eighties and I was working for Virgin Books at the time) that I could hardly take it seriously. I imagined myself going in on the first day and all the proper music-business professionals taking one look at me and refusing to have anything to do with me. It was when the person offering me the job told me that another big part of it was accompanying the acts and getting them through airports on their way to promotional appearances that I said 'no thanks'. I've read enough rock-group biogs to know exactly how stressful that would have been. Unfortunately the job-offerer took offence at my saying no and that was the end of a beautiful Eighties friendship... I remember he had a little trampoline in his office.)
Google search for Marlene Dumas
     Anyway, back to the Frith Street Gallery. No one going in took a blind bit of notice of the two of us standing politely outside. It was past opening time, so I got up my nerve and rang the doorbell. The gallery is a private commercial gallery so a big shop, really. You have to be brave if you just want to go in and take a look around -- that's how it feels, anyway. We were buzzed in and entered the gallery. There was a large space on the ground floor and a large space in the basement. The paintings were rather spartanly arrayed on the walls and I'm afraid the crucifixions which made up most of the ground-floor room weren't really my thing -- nor, I might have thought, Marlene's, given what I know of her previous work (I daren't use too many copyright images -- shouldn't really use any -- but I have included tiny reproductions as part of a screen grab from Google, above, to give a flavour). Downstairs was more in my comfort zone with some new and marvellous portraits, in pairs, of Phil Spector (see above), Amy Winehouse, Lawrence of Arabia and Osama bin Laden and his son. Imagine if they were all guests at your dinner party!
     I particularly like Dumas' work because she uses photographs and other images as sources for her own images and that's something I'm interested in exploring myself. Making an explicit link to Richter (who of course famously uses photographs as the basis for much of his work), she has done some paintings based on Richter's paintings of Gudrun Ennslin, of the Baader-Meinhof Gang -- Richter's paintings, in turn, were based on photos in newspapers.You can just see one of Dumas' paintings of Ennslin bottom-right in the screen grab above.
     (As we left I saw all the galleristas sitting at banks of computers in the back room where I wonder if they have to do the posh equivalent of phone selling to try to shift the paintings?)
Richter Google search
      Then we went over to Tate Modern for the Richter. As will be seen from my extensive collection of Richter postcards at the top of this post, I've managed to get to quite a few Richter exhibitions in my time, but this was a biggie. There were lots of images I was already familiar with and some that were fresh to me. I had never seen the one of the man being eaten by a lion 'in the flesh' before and it was very worth seeing this for real, because at full-size the photo-based painting broke up almost completely (when it's reduced down in a reproduction, the picture re-coalesces and becomes more readily 'readable', which perhaps isn't the effect Richter was going for).
     There was a whole room devoted to the Baader-Meinhof paintings, which I thought was relatively brave of the gallery as these pictures have caused a lot of discomfort in the past, particularly in Germany. Personally I find them very moving and not at all political in a crude 'left/right' way.
Roy Orbison by Wilhelm Sasnal
Finally we went back over the river to the Whitechapel to see a retrospective of work by Wilhelm Sasnal the Polish artist. You can definitely see the relation between his paintings and those of Dumas and Richter. Like them, he works from pre-existing images and makes this explicit in the work itself. I went to see a show at the Hayward a few years ago called The Painting of Modern Life which was a brilliant survey of artists who use photography as their starting point and ever since then I've felt much more confident in my liking for artists who do this. I have got over what my Dad said when I told him how my four large paintings in the final show for the Foundation course I did a couple of years ago were based on digital prints of old postcards worked over with pigment: 'You mean, like, colourin' in?' Pah.
St Brelade's Bay

   I have been rambling on for far too long. Just to say that all three shows are still on, and they did make a good day out because of the resonances between all three.
   Perhaps the best outcome of the day was that my son decided to use Richter as one of the artists whose style he will look at closely for his GCSE Art and he's going to try out Richter's 'squeegee' technique for one of his modules.


LAC EMP 2020 said...

Jane, I saw the interview on tv with Richter the other week and was ashamed to hear that he is considered the world's greates living artist - yet I had never heard of him. How embarrassing is that? I have since rectified the gap in my knowledge and envy you the day out even if it was a bit 'full on'. Saturating yourself in art for the day sounds like bliss and now I have another artist to investigate. I love that Roy Orbison painting and will have to find out more.

James Russell said...

Thanks for the introduction to Marlene Dumas - I imagine that her work is quite overwhelming 'in person'. Those Richter photo paintings are so powerful - I think partly because his approach makes the images seem impossibly old and faraway, but they're intimate at the same time.

No, painting from photos is definitely not colouring in!

Kitsch and Curious said...

Well, I'm ashamed to say I wasn't familiar with any of these artists. (I'd heard of Richter, but I'm not sure I'd even seen any of his paintings.)Really interesting to see the links between them. And kudos to you for inspiring your son!

menopausalmusing said...

I also had not heard of Richter..... how wonderful for you to take in this exhibition and the others. I just a love a day "doing" London and exhibitions, although it has been a considerable time since I have done so. Must get out more!;O)

colleen said...

I'm ashamed to say that I have not yet been to the Sasnal at the Whitechapel (it's only down the road too), though I very much enjoyed the Richter, especially the Baader Meinhof paintings. Very moving. I'll be going again.

I know just what you mean about the intimidating ambience of private galleries.

Thanks very much for sharing the connections.

Ellen van de Sande said...

I love Gerhard Richter's work, he has an amazing way of painting. I've seen a few paintings in the MOMA and was blown away by the size and the precision. Fantastic.